NOW releases ‘abysmal’ results in bromelain testing, announces plans to ramp up testing
Last month NutraIngredients-USA stopped by the NOW Foods facility in Bloomingdale, Ill. to discuss the company’s 55 years in business, its guiding principles and how it continues to raise the bar by challenging the industry.
“We need to stay true to the vision that Elwood Richard, our founder, gave us. And it really comes down to our mission and our mission statement is to provide value and products and services that empower people to live healthier lives. Elwood was a physical chemist. He was always a scientist and that was always first and foremost,” said Jim Emme, CEO, NOW Health Group.
“We've got 160 people in our quality group that are doing thousands of tests every month to make sure our quality is the best it can be. But we're also advocates in making sure that consumers get good choices, whether it's our product or it's another quality product. If we can influence industry standards to make sure that we're taking care of consumers, then that's a really good spot to be in,” added Emme.
A story that needed to be told
Staying true to Elwood's vision, the company is using science to guide consumers and the wider industry. In 2017, NOW sounded the alarm by testing unfamiliar brands on Amazon to evaluate the results and compare those to label claims. The program went on to be recognized, winning the NutraIngredients-USA Awards for Industry Initiative of the Year in 2021.
“We started testing and the results were terrible. So brands were from 0% potency 10%, 20%...they were very low and that just led to more testing. The more testing we did, the more problems we found and then we thought ‘What are we going to do with this information?’ So actually NutraIngredients[-USA] was one of the ones that came along and really helped make this a story because before that we really couldn't get anyone's attention. We took the information to Amazon. We took it to trade groups and nobody really was willing to take action on it. And in some senses, it's still that way today. Unfortunately, for all the testing and reporting we've done, there's still so much cheating going on and if anything, it seems like it's getting worse,” said Dan Richard, NOW’s Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing.
"The whole market is suspect"
Despite indications the problem is only worsening, NOW is determined to make changes. The latest round of testing is focused on bromelain, a proteolytic enzyme found in pineapples (Ananas comosus).
Richard said that earlier this year another brand tipped him off, explaining that bromelain would be a good product test.
“The whole market is suspect. The costs have doubled. When pricing goes up, cheating tends to go up as well because they're locked into prices. And the person told me that during covid a lot of pineapples went bad. So when people went to get the bromelain from pineapples, they had less crop, so more likelihood to cheat,” Richard said.
NOW purchased 19 samples of bromelain supplements on Amazon, plus NOW’s own capsule product, to verify label claims and potencies. The latest results were characterized by the company as some of “the most egregious testing results NOW has ever seen.”
The GDU activity in the samples purchased on Amazon was determined using the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) method for Bromelain. While NOW is capable of testing bromelain for GDU potency in-house, they decided to use Venture Labs, an independent laboratory that specializes in enzyme testing.
Some of the key findings include:
- 80% of products tested failed to meet label claims for potency
- Only six out of 20 samples contained over 50% of labeled potency
- Just four brands exceeded 100% potency, including NOW at 121%
- Two of the top four “sponsored” or paid advertised brands from a search on Amazon in March, 2023 included the violating brands in this round of testing
- Low potency products often spend the most money on marketing
- Three samples had ambiguous labeling that only claimed weight and no activity. Generally, bromelain powder has an activity of 2,400 GDU per gram, but these brands made no potency claims. Two of these product’s potencies were below the detection limit and were reported as < 10 GDU/g. The third brand, cadane, only contained 34 GDU of bromelain per capsule, which is extremely low potency
- Three brands were labeled as products made in India. These brands tested to only contain 10, 34, and 78 GDU potencies, respectively. Two were under 10% of label claim and the third made no potency claim
NOW to take more action
While Amazon has made some concessions, Richard hopes the testing leads to more sweeping changes at the e-commerce giant.
“We wish that Amazon did a lot [more]. So the one thing they did is they changed their standards to require ISO-17025, certain documents for different brands, but for whatever they've done, the cheaters find a way to cheat. So if you know what you're doing, it's not too hard to cheat, to copy lab assays, and put your name in and things like that. So all the same brands who were cheating six years ago, they're still cheating today, I still see them on Amazon. Some of them change their labels to pretend to be legit. They're cheating. It's still going on. It's very frustrating. You don't want to see cheaters win.
Cheaters may soon end up on the losing end, as NOW announces plans to ramp things up in the testing lab—and in the courtroom.
“So, NOW is thinking that we’ll test on Amazon and Walmart.com perhaps three times a year. And at some point, we're going to have to change gears and try something else. Either become very aggressive with FTC or FDA to press this. This may involve lawsuits or it could be involved with lawsuits against the brands specifically, because we need to have action and not just not just going through the motions,” said Richard.
Richard added that he has found that low potency products often spend the most money marketing on both Amazon and Walmart.com.
Amazon was contacted for a response to the new findings, but no comment was received prior to publication.