If you are looking into adding some nutritional supplements into your daily routine, then you are probably someone who is proactive about their health. When you choose a supplement or anything else you will be putting in your body, you want to know that you are getting a quality product. For example, you want to be sure that the supplement contains the substances advertised and does not contain any harmful chemicals.
Thankfully, there are several nutritional supplement certification programs in place which can verify the contents and manufacturing processes of supplements. If you know what to look for, you can find the symbols representing these certifications on supplement labels. This can help you to choose supplements that are safe, effective, and ethically manufactured. Read on to learn about the different supplement certifications that are available and what they mean.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have a certification program for dietary supplements, but it does regulate supplements to keep adulterated or misbranded products off the market. The term “adulterated” refers to products that contain dangerous substances, while “misbranded” means that labeling is false or misleading.
You may have seen the disclaimer stating that a supplement is “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease”. Companies display this disclaimer because the FDA prohibits them from making unsubstantiated health-related claims about their dietary supplements. If a product is established to be adulterated or misbranded, the FDA can take action to remove it from the market (1). The FDA also requires manufacturers to follow a set of good manufacturing practices (GMP) to ensure the quality of products.
U.S. Pharmacopoeia (USP)
USP verifies the quality of ingredients and products through a three-step process. They check for GMP at manufacturing facilities, evaluate quality control and manufacturing (QCM) processes, and test finished products. USP evaluates products according to their federally recognized standards of “quality, purity, potency, performance, and consistency”.
USP offers their services to companies around the world using cutting-edge technology such as identification of botanical products using DNA analysis. The USP Verified logo on supplement labels indicates that the product has passed the USP evaluation (2). The USP website lists 17 different manufacturers that have voluntarily participated in the dietary supplement verification program.
NSF International (founded as the National Sanitation Foundation) has a third-party certification program similar to USP’s. NSF provides GMP facility inspections. They conduct toxicology and contaminant testing to manufacturers around the world to ensure the safety of products. NSF also tests for the quantity and amount of ingredients listed on the label and reviews the marketing claims on the label. They have the authority to verify labeling claims such as gluten-free and kosher. NSF also offers a special Certified for Sport program which certifies that supplements are free of substances banned by sports organizations. NSF verification is indicated by the NSF logo on supplements (3).
Dietary supplements may be given the USDA Organic label if they contain organically grown agricultural products. Operations can obtain the organic certification through numerous agencies that are authorized by the USDA to conduct annual on-site inspections.
The organic standards of the USDA are designed to preserve the integrity of natural resources by prohibiting the use of most synthetic substances such as pesticides and fertilizers and encouraging natural methods in farming. Supplements can be labeled as “100% organic” if all ingredients are certified organic, “organic” if at least 95% of ingredients are certified organic, and “made with organic ___” if at least 70% of ingredients are organic (4).
Companies can obtain a vegan certification for their products through either The Vegan Awareness Foundation (VAF), or the Vegan Society. These are both nonprofit organizations devoted to promoting veganism, and they allow the use of their respective logos for products that pass an evaluation process. They review individual products, but do not provide on-site inspections or certify entire companies.
I was unable to find much information about the certification process for either organization, but they both claim to guarantee that the products were made without the use of animals in any way. This means that the products must contain no animal products and be processed without the use of animal products. The ingredients or finished product must not have been tested on animals, and products may not contain GMO’s derived from animals (5).
Products that are made on shared machinery that has come in contact with animal products may receive the certification, but steps should be taken to reduce cross-contamination. People with severe allergies to animal products should still contact manufacturers to ensure that there are no trace allergens in the product.
Read labels to get the best quality.
Choosing safe, effective supplements can be challenging, but the various independent certification programs offered to supplement companies can make the process easier for you as the consumer. When you see the logos of these organizations on a supplement label, you can be assured that the product meets the standards outlined above.
Be aware that companies may use marketing terms such as “natural” or “herbal” to make their products sound safer and more appealing. However, these terms are not regulated and do not guarantee the quality of the product. The surest sign of a high quality product is the USP or NSF logo. Some companies might advertise that they are GMP certified or follow GMP standards. However, since following GMP is required by law, this doesn’t by any means indicate that the products are of exceptional quality.
Most manufacturers use internal audits to assess adherence to GMP as outlined by the FDA. The USP and NSF certifications set products apart because they are given by widely recognized third parties which have higher standards than those required by law.
The USDA Organic and vegan certifications are of secondary importance, and they are not applicable to all supplements. Many supplements contain only vitamins and minerals, not biological products, and the organic certification would be irrelevant in those instances. The vegan logo is helpful for quickly spotting vegan products, but not all vegan products have the logo.
The best practice when choosing supplements is to look for logos and keywords that matter to you, but always use discretion. If a company using a lot of enticing language and claims about benefits but doesn’t provide any evidence, it is best to stay away. By choosing products that have proven their quality, you can ensure that when you spend money on supplements you are truly investing in your health.
1. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (n.d.). Dietary Supplements. Retrieved August 14, 2018, from https://www.fda.gov/food/dietarysupplements/
2. Verification Services. (n.d.). Retrieved August 14, 2018, from http://www.usp.org/services/verification-services
3. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (n.d.). Dietary Supplements. Retrieved August 14, 2018, from https://www.fda.gov/food/dietarysupplements/
4. Allowed & Prohibited Substances. (n.d.). Retrieved August 14, 2018, from https://www.ams.usda.gov/publications/content/allowed-prohibited-substances
5. Certification. (n.d.). Retrieved August 14, 2018, from https://vegan.org/certification/