Yesterday, the New York State Attorney General’s office demanded that four leading national retailers remove certain brands of herbal supplements from their shelves, citing that the products did not contain the ingredients on the label, and were made up of cheap and dangerous filler materials. You can read the full article in the New York Times here.
This has been a long time coming, and is just the tip of the iceberg. We have been warning the industry and the public about fraud in the supplement industry for years. This is an unregulated market with little in the way of FDA or regulatory oversight to prevent consumers from being ripped off by unverified contents of products. As eloquently put by New York state attorney general Eric T. Schneiderman: “Mislabeling, contamination and false advertising are illegal. They also pose unacceptable risks to New York families — especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients.”
Of particular concern is how this lack of regulation affects probiotic products. Since there is virtually no government oversight on claims of shelf stability or survival through stomach acid, claims are made with impunity. This is compounded when manufacturers make marketing-heavy claims that they don’t have to defend.
For instance, some brands promote their products as beneficial because they contain dozens of different bacterial strains. This “multi strain” feature sounds great to the average consumer, however the science behind the claims is flawed – not only do multi-strain probiotic products have a low survival rate due to competitive “fighting” between the strains, but also no-one can prove which genus or species or strain of bacteria was responsible for the results, because the contents of the final product are unverifiable.
While many companies attempt to curtail through the regulations, we are one of the few companies crying out for more verification of product contents. We would also like to see more focus on regulating what is in the products as opposed to just focusing on the product claims. Product claims are very important but knowing what is in the product is even more important, as this case has so clearly demonstrated. In regulated markets, the key to consumer protection is verification by a 3rd party – and this weakness in the supplement market is, in our opinion, dangerous to the consumer. High potency matters only if each strain survives transportation, shelf life and stomach acid. Making claims that some enteric coating system is effective in protecting a probiotic product is not valid unless a 3rd party verifies the claim. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to trust the manufacturer of these products, since one offshore contract manufacturer makes almost all of the commercial probiotics on the market.
Occasionally we do see thing move in the right direction. For instance, we are now hearing that a leading national dietary supplement chain will only be representing probiotics that must be sold from the cooler and shipped cold, and that they will begin discontinuing probiotics that are not sold from the cooler. This is fantastic news for the consumer, and hopefully the beginning of a trend where probiotics are treated like the live products throughout the chain of custody to the consumer.
Happily, Natren is one of those rare cases of a manufacture that researches and manufactures its probiotics in-house in our state-of-the-art facility in Southern California. The development of Natren probiotics is based on 45 years of scientific research, probiotic production technology and product development knowledge. Each Natren probiotic organism is selected to perform a certain function in the GI tract. The Natren probiotic strains are then fermented, freeze dried and packaged in a temperature-controlled environment to preserve their integrity. Our probiotic products are designed to survive transportation and refrigerated storage. The delivery system is designed to protect the probiotic microbes from the destructive force of stomach acid.
This is an issue that we feel very strongly about. Throughout the life of our company, we have been devoted to consumer advocacy, scientific research, and manufacturing the best probiotic possible. We go the extra mile and invite internationally recognized 3rd parties to test and validate our claims and provide independent assurance to our customers. Unsurprisingly, we find it infuriating when mediocre products are allowed to make unsubstantiated claims, and can get away with it because there is little regulation in the marketplace.
We hope that this news, and the actions taken by the State of New York, serves as an eye-opener for the consumer, and also for the regulatory authorities whose job it is to protect the public, and we hope that one day there will be sufficient regulation to remove the rotten apples from the barrel. Until that happens, buyer beware – when it comes to supplements, and probiotics in particular, be sure to fully understand the product that you are putting in your body. Get to know the company that made it, and in the absence of regulatory oversight, understand which independent third party has validated the manufacturers’ claims.