Dr Tod Cooperman operates a service called ConsumerLab that tests selections of dietary supplements in various categories and makes the product reviews public. Industry critics of Cooperman’s service (and there are many) say that it is in his interest to structure tests to yield as many negative results as possible and that he is not transparent about where he has the tests done. And they criticize the way in which he withholds results for products testing in CL's certification program, though Cooperman notes this is the same policy as other third party certification programs.
DNA test a poor choice
Nevertheless, Cooperman is regarded outside of the industry as a valuable and credible independent voice and is often quoted in mainstream media stories. So like it or not, his opinion carries weight, and in this case Cooperman sides with industry on the applicability of DNA bardcoding for the testing of finished products.
“The correct way to test herbal extracts is not with DNA probes but with chemical analyses. When this news came out we posted a statement to that effect on our website,” Cooperman told NutraIngredients-USA.
One of the issues with how the AG’s office went about its investigation is that the stray DNA found in various samples tested was not measured, which is difficult to do with this type of test in any case. The AG’s test results showed a number of DNA readings that were for substances other than the herbs listed on the label. In many cases these could be attributed to common excipients, but might also have shown accidental or deliberate adulteration. But based on the information that the AG has made public about the tests, there’s really no way to know, Cooperman said.
“If contaminants are in there, that could be an issue, but it’s hard to know because it is not quantified. I would think that many of these products do, in fact, contain the phytochemicals that would be expected if you were looking for those with the proper chemical analysis,” he said.
Quality still an issue
But Cooperman said that while industry has a point in this case, that shouldn’t hide the fact that his tests over the years have shown that there can be serious questions about the quality of some dietary supplements. For example, in a highly publicized case a few years ago, Cooperman found that most valerian products tested did not meet quality standards. While industry stakeholders criticized how he arrived at his figures, the fact remains that several of the products contained no valerian at all.
“Regardless of whether the attorney general used the right test or not, it has gone beyond that. It has drawn attention to an area where there are issues for sure,” Cooperman said.
“We see it often, looking at it from a chemical perspective. We will see that an herbal product won’t contain the right compounds in the right ratios. There are groups out there taking leftover, low quality herbal material and spiking it with cheap marker compounds to fool crude chemical tests,” he said.
Cooperman acknowledged that efforts to combat the issue of low quality finished products and adulterated raw materials is gaining momentum within the industry. But he said unequivocally that more needs to be done, and that consumers are starting to wake up to the fact that not all dietary supplements on the shelf or sold online are what they say they are.
“More definitely needs to be done to improve quality among herbal supplements. I applaud the work done by Mark Blumenthal and the American Botanical Council’s adulterants program.
“As we all know, there are certainly regulations regarding dietary supplements including herbals. The regulations are looser than they could be. Even with the advent of GMPs, people outside the industry are often surprised to find that they don’t include specific standards for how you test products. Companies are supposed to choose reasonable, scientifically valid tests. By not defining these things it does leave it open for an herbal company, or even the New York AG, to decide for itself in each case what is a reasonable test,” Cooperman said.
“There has definitely has been a large uptick in interest in information about the quality of supplements. We have seen a dramatic increase in subscriptions to our website,” Cooperman said.