Special edition: Transparency in Dietary Supplements

Is a transparent global supply chain the Holy Grail?

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Image: iStockPhoto
Image: iStockPhoto

Related tags Transparency Dietary supplement

The dietary supplements industry must be transparent about transparency to ensure that it transparency really does make a difference and boost consumer confidence in the products, say industry experts.

As part of our special edition on transparency in dietary supplements we posed question to a select group of industry voices, from market-leading brands to ingredient suppliers to analytical labs, and here’s what they have to say about building transparency into a company from the ground up, what questions consumers are asking, why industry must protect against transparency becoming a worthless marketing term, and more.

Is there a danger that transparency becomes a worthless marketing term and how does the industry prevent that happening?

Matthew Roberts, PhD

Matthew Roberts, Chief Scientific Officer, NBTY:​ “There is always the risk of words becoming nothing more than marketing jargon.  But as an organization in an already highly scrutinized industry, we must ensure to follow-up our words with action that is evident to the consumer. In fact, it is important that we act as a resource to educate the consumer on the relevance and importance of transparency so they are asking the right questions in a complex environment.

“Many of the choices on the dietary supplement shelf are not straightforward, and there has been evidence of “bad players” in the industry. Therefore, it is important that NBTY, as a global leader in the dietary supplements industry, has a relationship with our customers and consumers that allows for a deeper conversation so that our brand(s) reflects these shared values.”

Shaheen Majeed, Marketing Director, Sabinsa:​ “If it is words without actions, yes, it will certainly not be useful. If done right, it can make all the difference.”


Jim Emme, CEO, NOW Health Group:​ “Any term that gets used as much as “transparency” has in the last year is bound to be used with varying degrees of authenticity, as we’ve already seen. What are we being transparent about? Quality.  When companies show it rather than just say it, consumers reward them with their trust.” 

Elan Sudberg, Alkemist Labs 1

Elan Sudberg, CEO, Alkemist Labs:​ “If the industry doesn’t continue to clean up its act and also earns another scandal I fear that the word transparency will certainly become a worthless marketing term. This can be avoided by a pre-emptive attack on adulteration by an unyielding testing regiment and publically sharing all the data.”

Anne van Gastel, Director, BASF Nutrition & Health: ​“We must be transparent about being transparent! That means opening the doors like we do at BASF so stakeholders can see how products are sourced, processed and delivered. For us transparency is a license to operate and not a ‘marketing term’.”

Todd King Gaia

Todd King, VP of Marketing, Gaia Herbs: ​“There is always a risk of something becoming diluted by its wide-spread adaptation. Transparency, to us, is far more than a live-streaming video feed or a catchy infographic. This is why MeetYourHerbs is so robust – we show beautiful images of our farms and herbs, but we also dive deep to show the real work that happens from seed to shelf.”

George Pontiakos, president of BI Nutraceuticals: ​“Transparency will always be a good marketing term. I think industry needs to let consumers know that the products are safe and efficacious. When you buy my label you’re buying my trust. We encourage it. We’ve been leaders in it and are happy to see the industry come behind the issue.”

Some commentators have said that transparency must be built into a company from the ground up. How much of a challenge is that in an industry with a complex global supply chain?

Matthew Roberts, Chief Scientific Officer, NBTY:​ “The dietary supplement industry is a team sport, meaning that the suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers all must do our part when it comes to transparency.  Working with our suppliers to get only the highest quality materials, as well as the appropriate documentation and qualification of raw materials, are just examples of steps we take to build stronger transparency in our organization.” 


Shaheen Majeed, Marketing Director, Sabinsa: ​“Even better I believe, a transparent global supply chain - is that the holy grail? It doesn't have to appear that way, because as per regulations that govern this industry, there must be audits of suppliers, even overseas.  I'm amazed that only a few marketing companies actually make it over to our facilities, for which we have an open door policy, but yet through excuses of cost or travel, or sometimes other obligations, they are reluctant to make the visit. It may be because of our reputation for quality but still, what a shame.

“From suppliers to marketing companies, there are ways to build in transparency even if it wasn't there from the beginning. One simple way is to work on your paperwork, and add the things customers are asking.”

Jim Emme, CEO, NOW Health Group: ​“When you are careful in your sourcing, it’s not a challenge to extend transparency to throughout the manufacturing process.  If there are companies that buy the materials we reject because they don’t test to be what we expect them to be, they would not want to reveal that, obviously. I don’t think that’s sustainable behavior in a time where nothing stays secret indefinitely.”

Elan Sudberg, CEO, Alkemist Labs: ​“Transparency must be built into a company from the ground up and when it’s not, it’s a challenge to re-write the internal policy on such. Many companies have benefited financially from a lack of transparency all these years only to learn of the paradigm shift towards full transparency.  While it may be a challenge to clean up all the dark corners, these days nothing stays hidden forever so proactively making sure your business practices and stand up to scrutiny and then revealing those practices is the only sustainable course long term.”

Todd King, VP of Marketing, Gaia Herbs:​ “The highest-quality herbal products require the highest-quality herbs. By committing to controlling our entire supply chain, Gaia Herbs eliminates the three biggest issues for botanicals: adulteration, identity, and solvent residue.

“We are the only one in our industry with a true seed-to-shelf platform, which delivers the proof of purity, integrity, and potency of our products to ensure consumer safety and efficacy.”

What level of detail are your customers demanding for transparency?

Pontiakos Screenshot

George Pontiakos, president of BI Nutraceuticals: ​“The industry is very market driven, and very responsive and entrepreneurial. Last year we saw consumers wanted clean label and this year it’s all about clear label – clearing up a label so a consumer can understand the ingredients.”

Matthew Roberts, Chief Scientific Officer, NBTY: ​“Customers are becoming increasingly educated in their understanding of food and individual ingredients.  Because of that, questions that the consumer is asking about our products are more sophisticated as well.  NBTY, as an organization, must be prepared to answer those sophisticated questions.”

Jim Emme, CEO, NOW Health Group: ​“The consumers of NOW’s products want to know how we can assure them that our products are what we say they are, and that what is on the label is actually in the product.  Consumers are much more informed than in years past, and we believe this is a very good thing for our brand and our industry.”

Elan Sudberg, CEO, Alkemist Labs: ​“Since the very first tests we performed we have been fully transparent. Other labs even requested we stop showing so much of our data in fear that it would produce false expectations for the other labs (which it did…). So since our inception transparency has been the norm; now to get the other labs to do the same. Still there are some who feel it acceptable to charge more for the full results.”

Anne van Gastel BASF

Anne van Gastel, Director, BASF Nutrition & Health: ​“At BASF we believe more is better when it comes to transparency. We offer our customers documentation supporting the quality, safety and efficacy of our dietary supplement ingredients. These documents include, but are not limited to: third-party recognized GFSI certifications, specifications and certificates of analysis, facility registrations, GMO, Kosher, Halal and technical information.  Sustainability also is an important aspect of transparency. We have seen an increase in customers wanting to know that we are protecting and preserving the raw material source.

“As part of our Journey to Excellence initiative, we strive to have the best quality systems that will continually improve our customers’ experience and help them be more successful.

“Our Supplier Qualification Program (SQP) helps us drive quality from the selection and approval of raw material suppliers to the order fulfillment process. To ensure and sustain quality ingredients, the SQP can include questionnaires, audits and verification of prerequisite systems that demonstrate adequate GMP systems are in place.   

“We have a Quality Council composed of experts throughout the company to ensure that we surpass our customers’ specifications, not just in North America but globally. That’s an important point as the FDA’s new FSMA is putting more emphasis on ensuring that raw material suppliers meet its quality requirements whether sourced from the US or imported from other countries.

“BASF’s traceability and mock recall exercises offer traceability forwards and backwards. We define a roadmap for traceability from the raw material to final product and vice versa. The goal is to enable efficient recall management and identification of the affected product or batch. These traceability and recall drills are a test of integrity for multiple systems across the entire supply chain, and trace every step of production, processing and distribution from the raw material to the customer.

“The bottom line is transparency is fundamental to the safety and efficacy of dietary supplements. At BASF, each of us owns that responsibility. We are committed to providing the transparency our customers require to help them be more successful.”

Todd King, VP of Marketing, Gaia Herbs: ​“It varies. Those who are new to herbs or to Gaia simply want to see the data once to verify our process. Others want to know as much as we are willing to share – information about each herb, down to the farm where it was grown. Our long-time customers know they can trust us – and they’ve seen the proof – so they want to learn more about herbs to support their health, our growing practices and other educational information.”

Supplements and bottle © monticelllo
Image © iStockPhoto / monticelllo

From a consumer perspective, what kind of information are they looking for? (sourcing, quality standards, science to support the claims, etc?)

Matthew Roberts, Chief Scientific Officer, NBTY:​ “Customers inquire about the evidence to support specific claims, the specific active ingredient in a product, and the type of processing the product has undergone, just to name a few.  Most recently though, source is the hottest topic.  Customers want to not only be able to pronounce the ingredients that they consume, but also know where the ingredients come from and how they were harvested or cultivated.” 

Jim Emme, CEO, NOW Health Group: ​“Consumers do contact us with questions, and are very interested in the sourcing of our materials, the purity of our ingredients, and most frequently, if we we perform approved tests on our products. We are in a position to readily provide them clear answers to their questions, and they consistently express their gratitude for our openness.”

Elan Sudberg, CEO, Alkemist Labs: ​“The consumers are well educated these days about quality. They know it should be there and want to see proof that it’s in place. I don’t think the average fish oil customer can interpret a GC analysis, however, having it available with a relevant lot # matching the product in hand is going to be expected soon. Smart, forward thinking companies are already starting to make test results available.”

Anne van Gastel, Director, BASF Nutrition & Health: ​“For consumers, country of origin is becoming increasingly important.  Transparency, quality, and safety are synonymous and consumers want to know the product’s origin. Science supporting the claims is also of major interest. We have to make it easy for consumers to find that information. For example, on our Tonalin CLA website, consumers can find the studies supporting the body composition claims made on the product labels.”

Todd King, VP of Marketing, Gaia Herbs: ​“They want assurance, in a variety of forms. Pesticides remain a top concern, as do heavy metals and biological contaminants (we provide proof that our products are free of all three). We view education as an opportunity to keep the conversation going with our valued consumers. We see increased attention given to our industry as an opportunity to educate consumers about our products and how herbs can be used to support health and vitality.

“In 2015, we launched an educational blog to help cultivate deeper connections between plants and people. We share a mix of seasonal tips for healthier living, consumer-friendly science and health news and updates on our farm and products (plus delicious recipes).”

Transparency © IvelinRadkov
Image © iStockPhoto / IvelinRadkov

Are there any industry-wide initiatives promoting transparency? If no, do you think there should be and who should lead that?

Shaheen Majeed, Marketing Director, Sabinsa:​ “There should be a base, a commitment of some degree of transparency by all parties involved. From there, I'm sure certifications, seals, and the companies doing such transparency work could further benefit us all.”

Jim Emme, CEO, NOW Health Group: ​“There is a lot of conversation about what the industry should do to address concerns, but there doesn’t seem to be consensus yet. Because the industry includes a wide range of sizes and types of companies, a “one size fits all” program spearheaded by leaders from a narrow segment of the industry would be problematic, and not protect consumer access to choices.  To truly encompass the range of companies and products, there would need to be a coalition of trade associations committed to more than just the preferences of their members.”

Elan Sudberg, CEO, Alkemist Labs: ​“I am not aware of any industry-wide initiatives promoting transparency aside from the usual suspects (yours truly) and mostly from the manufacturing side. No labs have been as vocal about this as we have.”

Todd King, VP of Marketing, Gaia Herbs:​ While there are others in our industry who are working to promote transparency, there is not a wide-­‐ spread initiative. We would love to see one, and we would, of course, also love to lead the cause. MeetYourHerbs was launched as a way to show consumers that they could trust our industry. Our DNA-­‐statistical model is so pioneering that, in 2014, Gaia’s chief scientists were the only Natural Products Industry representatives invited to speak at the annual gathering of the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP).

George Pontiakos, president of BI Nutraceuticals: ​I think there may be one that is coming out, and companies are ramping up on this and trying to get ahead of any legislation. There are a lot of people looking at getting ahead of any product and formulation registry. A problem for the industry is that we don’t have one single legislative voice. We’re a $35 billion industry but we don’t have one single lobby group, no single voice. There are too many trade associations. There’s a lack of coordination in some areas and total over-coordination in other areas.

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L-Tryptophan epidemic of 1989

Posted by Nancy Campbell,

I was sickened by Showa Denko's gmo L-Tryptophan in september of 1989. From what i can tell it is also happening with 5-htp and melatonin (but i don't know if they are gmo).

I watched frontline's program on supplement transparency and found, to my dismay that the shaklee omega guard i take is rancid. It's advertised as being pharmaceutically pure. When put into a styrofoam bowl with water and allowed to sit there for approximately 180 minutes, it ate through the bowl. It smelled bad too. I was shocked. One of the capsules was even empty. It costs $47+ for 180 capsules.

have you or anyone else heard anything about this?


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Re: Gaia Herbs answers

Posted by Pavel Axentiev,

A "highest quality herb" is all good, but it will probably drive the price of the product up, and some of the regular suppliers out of business. Supplements are processed products, so you can afford "second-quality" material - that of course doesn't mean adulteration, and the material should pass the standard tests, IMHO.

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