Special edition: Transparency in Dietary Supplements

Should transparency be a priority for the supplements industry?

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Image: © iStockPhoto / monticelllo
Image: © iStockPhoto / monticelllo

Related tags Transparency Dietary supplement

The NY AG’s probe into herbal supplements has done a lot to change the industry conversation over transparency, and some practices by some industry members cannot continue because they jeopardize the entire business community, say industry experts.

We posed question to a select group of industry voices, from market-leading brands to ingredient suppliers to analytical labs, and here are what they have to say about the NY AG’s probe, whether transparency should be a priority for the industry, and why complacency and a business-as-usual attitude cannot be allowed to continue.

Have the New York Attorney General’s actions changed the industry conversation on transparency? If yes, how? 


Jim Emme, CEO, NOW Health Group:​ “The NY AG’s actions and resulting media coverage has done a lot more than change the conversation on transparency; they have challenged the industry’s integrity. It’s also raised questions about the viability of the industry’s future. We’re talking about things openly that we have not in the past, such as supply chain quality challenges.”


Shaheen Majeed, Marketing Director, Sabinsa:​ “It's certainly making us talk about issues! It's creating conversations on all sides - marketing companies, contract manufacturers, suppliers - about what can be done to avoid, test, confirm what needs to be addressed to keep such instances from happening, and how best to translate that into your business practices.”

Elan Sudberg, Alkemist Labs 1

Elan Sudberg, CEO, Alkemist Labs:​ “Conversations are occurring about best practices and fit for purpose however in the background we are still operating under the snGMPs (Schneiderman's new GMP's...). Many are still in the pre-emptive "quick, mindlessly test everything how Eric Schneiderman  wants us to regardless if such tests are compliant with cGMPs​" mode, but for a number of companies this has made them re-evaluate what they have been doing, and step up their testing programs to make sure they are compliant with the actual cGMP’s.”

Pontiakos Screenshot

George Pontiakos, president of BI Nutraceuticals:​ “The NY AG situation has brought transparency to the forefront.

“Why are you doing business with a guy who is not being transparent? Shame on you! Transparency requires a significant monetary investment, and that’s where you provide value. You’re paying for safe, efficacious, compliant product. If you cannot afford the investment, get out of the business.”

Todd King Gaia

Todd King, VP of Marketing, Gaia Herbs:​ “Not at Gaia. Consumers are moving to brands they trust, and Gaia is brand they trust – we have always been committed to providing the highest quality of herbal products. We have had an onsite lab since 1994, and today our scientists lead the industry with their DNA standardization models. As a company that is vertically integrated from seed to shelf – thanks in large part to our 350 acre Certified Organic farm in North Carolina and our new organic farm in Costa Rica where we grow Turmeric – we test every batch of herbs used in our products to guarantee them free of pesticide residue, heavy metals and microbes. Both our farms are Certified Organic by Oregon Tilth.

“In 2010, we launched MeetYourHerbs, which is the industry’s first and only traceability program. Customers –and attorneys general – can see the proof that what’s on the label is what’s in the bottle. We publish our test results for every batch and every product right on the website.

“This was the response from Jeremy Stewart, PhD, Gaia’s Chief Scientist and VP of Scientific Affairs, at the time of the New York Attorney General’s investigation: ‘We have a steadfast dedication to the purity of each herb and we use science to meticulously validate our herbs, not just after production but throughout the process. It’s essentially what makes Gaia different. We start with DNA identity verification on all raw materials before we even consider putting them through the manufacturing process. It’s a method of purity and integrity that equates to potency and safety. The meticulous attention our scientists devote to the entire process allows us to share complete transparency with our customers through MeetYourHerbs. We do need industry-wide quality assurance measures that go beyond the occasional regulated testing so shoppers can have confidence in herbal supplements. But at Gaia, we’re already there.’​”

Should transparency be a priority for the dietary supplements industry and why?

Anne van Gastel BASF

Anne van Gastel, Director, BASF Nutrition & Health:​ “It’s not a question. It’s a reality. Product integrity is paramount. Consumers and regulators are demanding transparency and for BASF this is fully in line with our core values. The cornerstone of our business has always been quality and we welcome the opportunity to share how we source, process and deliver our ingredients.”

Jim Emme, CEO, NOW Health Group:​ “NOW has always been committed to protecting consumer access to safe and affordable products to empower them to live healthier lives, and the industry has to follow sustainable business practices to do so. Part of that involves a commitment to true quality and all that entails, so with the questions that have been raised by the media, attorneys, and other critics, we have to prove ourselves. In my mind, the only way to do that is to be genuinely transparent.”

Matthew Roberts, PhD

Matthew Roberts, Chief Scientific Officer, NBTY:​ “As a global leader in the health and wellness industry, with a history spanning over 100 years, NBTY is fully committed to the safety and efficacy of our products. Ensuring appropriate tracking methods of individual ingredients from source to finished good are a critical part of our organizations mission. Accountability and integrity are two of our core values, and we believe that erring on the side of increased transparency is always best.” 

George Pontiakos, president of BI Nutraceuticals​, told us that transparency has always been a priority for the industry in general. “BI has been transparent since we started in 1978. It’s not difficult to be transparent. It’s not a challenge. “I don’t understand all the hand wringing and drama around transparency. What’s happened is that there continues to be a number of under-capitalized suppliers, and the buyers are so price driven that they don’t care about quality. Many companies – not the majority but a sizable minority – don’t want to invest in the supply chain. They would rather invest in marketing.  The drama and concern comes about because you have a level of sophistication for transparency and that requires an investment.”

Elan Sudberg, CEO, Alkemist Labs:​ “Absolutely! Much traction towards consumer confidence has been lost recently to various scandals, some accurate and some purely negative propaganda. Increasing and maintaining transparency is a requirement and must span the categories within the dietary supplement industry from growers, labs, and manufacturers to big brand holders. It's time to take quality out of the closet...”

Shaheen Majeed, Marketing Director, Sabinsa:​ “Transparency be a priority for the dietary supplements industry; it will create a stronger bond between all parties involved, plus both sides gain knowledge by exchanging more information, leading to a more fruitful relationship that is long term - that applies for B2B companies straight through to consumers.”

Todd King, VP of Marketing, Gaia Herbs:​ “Yes. We push ourselves beyond what is required, because we truly believe that is the right thing to do. We have long encouraged all brands to provide transparency, and we’ve done it ourselves.

“Transparency and traceability are paramount to Gaia, as is the trust our consumers place in us, so in 2015 we decided to go even further—and we’ll continue to do so—and relaunched MeetYourHerbs. Now, this traceability program, which contains even more quality test results, allows you to go straight to the source of your herbs and take a virtual walk on our farms. You can learn how the herbs are planted, cultivated and harvested. Consumers can learn about the exact science that takes their herbs from seed to shelf. They can explore our validation process, and discover each herb’s uses, history and function.”

Transparency © IvelinRadkov
Image © iStockPhoto


Some people would argue that consumer confidence in supplements is high so why bother with transparency (CRN survey data indicates that about 84% expressing overall confidence in the safety, quality and effectiveness of dietary supplements). What do you say to those people?

Elan Sudberg, CEO, Alkemist Labs:​ “We must never stop 'bothering' with transparency, ever. We must make every batch our best batch and every test our best test and share that data until we the day we close up shop....

“While some say consumer confidence is high, I am highly confident that we have only begun to see the attacks on this industry. Now that we have inadvertently hazed Eric Scheiderman into using the right testing methods on the appropriate test samples, his game is much more strategic and specific, and this industry has many vulnerable points in the arena of nomenclature with Genus and species issues as well as adulteration.”

Shaheen Majeed, Marketing Director, Sabinsa:​ “Companies that make up the responsible and ethical core of the industry have been doing things right and talking about it all along, which is where the consumer confidence is coming from. We must continue that with a heightened focus on quality, delivery and safety.”

Jim Emme, CEO, NOW Health Group:​ “To continue “business as usual” in the face of very real questions about product quality is foolhardy. In my experience, the reason consumer confidence is high is that they trust their chosen brands, not the broader industry. The details of the criticism may be off base, but we all know there are some practices by some industry members that cannot continue because they jeopardize the entire business community.”

Anne van Gastel, Director, BASF Nutrition & Health:​ “That means 16% are not so confident so we could very well be at a tipping point. We’re in a good place for the most part which is exactly when we should do all we can to secure consumer confidence. Younger generations and millennials, in particular, are rightfully demanding transparency to gain their trust. One goes hand in hand with the other: transparency is fundamental to trust.”

Todd King, VP of Marketing, Gaia Herbs:​ “This is what we do. It’s so important to us.  We want to share the proof of our herbs’ purity, integrity and potency with the world, and we encourage the entire industry to do the same thing. And there is always an opportunity to expand that confidence to a new audience as more consumers come across the aisle to natural products. We want to share proof so that there are no sceptics – we want to take that 16% down as low as we can get it or out completely.

“Ensuring compliance from seed to shelf is a major undertaking, but it remains the highest priority for our team, and especially for our CEO and Founder Ric Scalzo. At Gaia, we continue to prove that brands can focus on the bottom line while working with the highest levels of integrity and protecting people and the planet. The evolution of an industry-leading quality platform never ends, and in recent years, our science team has continued to refine processes that deliver safe, effective products.”

Matthew Roberts, Chief Scientific Officer, NBTY:​ “While it is reassuring that CRN has data indicating such strong consumer confidence, we as an organization believe it is our responsibility to ensure we understand all aspects of our products, from source to finished product. This level of accountability is critical so that we can provide the level of transparency regarding our supply chain that our consumers and retailers deserve.”

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Verifiable Independent Results

Posted by Ken,

I agree with Larry: transparency is only as clear as it can be independently verified and openly provided to the consumer. cGMPs are an internal process and easily falsified. Consumers need to be educated for what to look for in a product. Beyond third-party verification of the label identities and quantities of ingredients in a given product, consumers want to know if the product contains excessive pesticides,bacteria, fungi, and heavy metals. Does it contain prescription drugs or banned substances? Are the suggested dosages of a product clinically verified for efficacy? Are the quantities of ingredients in a proprietary formulation effective? Are the quantities of ingredients transparent on the label? If not, has the proprietary formula been subjected to human clinical studies and shown any benefit? Unless these matters are brought to the forefront and addressed, consumers will be purchasing products on faith rather than verification.

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So What

Posted by Larry,

None of this will make any difference if the consumer does not understand the differences between the companies that choose quality over dollars. Some of the company representatives quoted in this article use questionable raw materials that are not what they appear to be. If the industry is really serious about transparency then it should create and fund an independent testing laboratory to check all of the products on the market. The reports should be made public and on the record. This will eliminate the marginal companies that do use the proper raw materials, use allergenic fillers or binders or just lie on their labels.

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