How is a Good Quality Supplement Made?

Posted on 3/13/2015 by Dr. den Boer
Categories: supplements, vitamins

In our last post, we learned about the very poor state of the American supplement and nutraceutical industry, as well as some of the underlying quality issues with the largely unregulated industry. Now that we’re able to better identify poor quality supplements, how do we detect “good” quality supplements? What is involved in making a supplement of the utmost efficacy and consumer confidence?

Let’s answer the latter question first with an example.

The Many Steps to Making a High Quality Supplement

Pretend you own a start-up supplement company and want to add a product to your supplement lineup. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll say you want to put Echinacea purpurea into capsules and sell it for its immune-boosting effects.  So, you start by ordering Echinacea in bulk from a supplier, and receive several large bags of plant material.
Echinacea purpurea
Echinacea purpurea.  Image from Wikimedia Commons.
A few red flags on the quality of the Echinacea plants are already apparent:
  • -How do you know the plants are actually Echinacea rather than some similar-looking weed, like wild bergamot?  Or just some leftover stock from decorative greenhouse plants, such as dracaena?
  • -Supposing these plants are, in fact, Echinacea, are they the correct parts of the plant?  Traditionally, Echinacea needs to be harvested while flowering, and generally just the flowers and the roots of the plants are used for medicinal purposes.  Obviously, it is much easier for a supplier to just cut and grind up the whole plant, minus the roots, as soon as they grow large enough.
  • -How do you know and trust the conditions the plants have grown in?  Were they grown with the use of potentially harmful pesticides or insecticides?  Were there heavy metals or other toxins in the soil that have made their way into the plants? 
  • -How were the plants dried or processed?  If they were dried or processed at a temperature too high, this may have destroyed some or all of the active compounds in the plant.  If they were dried improperly or too slowly they may have been broken down by fungi or bacteria, or contaminated with harmful molds.  If they were processed on improperly or poorly cleaned machines, there may be cross-contamination with other ingredients, such as gluten. This raises concerns about triggering unexpected allergic reactions.
  • -How long were the plants stored, and under what conditions?  Some plants may lose efficacy after having been stored too long or in the wrong conditions.
  • -How were the plants shipped?  If they were exposed to moisture, extreme heat or cold, or other factors, they may be contaminated with mold or lose efficacy.
  • -Suppose you’ve taken all of the above into account, how do you know how potent your Echinacea is?  Growing conditions change the way plants grow and the amount of different compounds they form, so even if the grower and supplier do everything right in terms of quality control, there will be variations in the amount and proportions of different active compounds.  Echinacea has many different active compounds in it; as a manufacturer, you will have to decide which compounds are the most important to control for.
This is all before you’ve even figured out how to manufacture the capsules!  It would be very tedious to analyze every step of manufacturing the Echinacea capsules, but it will be your responsibility to do the following:
  • -Determine correct dosing, including making sure consistent dosages make it into each capsule.
  • -Determine how to best preserve and deliver the dose (i.e. Will the extract keep better as an alcohol extract or as dried plant material? Will it be damaged by stomach acids? Or, will stomach acid exposure be a necessary component prior to absorption in the intestines?  Is there a way to better control how the compounds are absorbed?).
  • -Ensure is no damage to the material or contamination with other ingredients or bacteria.
  • -After you’ve ensured that you have a pure, clean, effective product, you need to make sure that it maintains its efficacy up until the expiration date, and will not be damaged during shipping to stores or customers.
The only way to be sure all of these parameters are met is with rigorous laboratory testing of the raw materials and finished products for purity, consistency, stability, and identity (i.e. making sure the right ingredients are inside), as well as by maintaining good manufacturing oversight at all times.  Third-party lab verification is also a best practice to ensure honesty, transparency, and trust with quality control and product label claims. Naturally, all of these tests add a massive price to the manufacturing of a supplement, making it harder to compete with the cheaper, untested brands on the pharmacy shelves. Alas, few companies are motivated or equipped with the financial resources to comply with such rigorous quality control measures.

As you can see, the process to manufacture a quality supplement is surprisingly complex and expensive. In our next article, we’ll discuss how to detect a good quality supplement on your own, so you can make the best decisions for your health. 
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