U.S. consumers spent an estimated $9.602 billion on herbal dietary supplements in 2019, according to the American Botanical Council’s (ABC) 2019 Herb Market Report. That’s an 8.6% increase in total U.S. sales from 2018. And the growth continued as COVID-19 became a public health crisis: During the first six months of 2020, ABC reports that “steep sales increases” were seen for some ingredients (1). That’s the good news, but as with all things 2020, it’s complicated. Consumers are motivated, but they are also confused about what to take, and who and what to trust.

“These are strange times,” admits Elan Sudberg, CEO, Alkemist Labs. “Never in my memory have we been served such conflicting information about critical issues from all sides and by equivalent experts...False news or Alternative Facts? Wear a mask or don’t wear a mask? (I wear my mask, all day, all the time.) Couple this with the waning but existing cloud of mistrust already over the natural products industry and it makes sense why the consumers seek third-party lab testing and third-party certifications to a level never observed before. ‘Look honey, they say they do all their own testing, it must be good...’ said no consumer ever. They want Consumer Reports level details on supplements.”

David Trosin, Managing Director, Health Sciences Certification, NSF International, adds, “Obviously, COVID-19 has impacted the way consumers look at everything, including our industry, and one of those impacts is a closer scrutiny on the quality of products. The quality of how they are manufactured may not be as obvious to most consumers, but it is a big factor in the quality of the products. Consumers want assurance that the ingredients on the label reflect what is in the bottle, and that the manufacturer is using strong risk-prevention protocols in their manufacturing process. This trend has been accelerated by COVID-19, but it’s not new—it’s been growing for years. Recent consumer research by NSF International shows slightly more than half (53%) of Baby Boomers surveyed were concerned about potentially harmful food and consumer products. What’s more, that number jumps to 64% for Gen X, and leaps to 74% for Millennials.”

There’s an opportunity in that: Kevin Yan, M.Sc., Director, Certification and Analytics, Nutrasource Pharmaceutical and Nutraceutical Services, says one of the best ways to prioritize the quality of your products and to differentiate from competitors is through third party certifications. “When your products are analyzed throughout the supply chain and manufacturing process by a third party, you ensure that the product has been handled properly and the quality will be there in the finished product. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the various certifications available in the dietary supplement industry and are demanding them as an independent way to confirm that the products they purchase have been manufactured properly and truly contain what the label lists.”

The fact is, says Sudberg, there should be nothing to hide. “Not your source and farm and farming practices, not your lab, not your manufacturer and not your quality. If there is, then something is out of balance. This industry’s customers are getting younger and they want to know all the data, so why not share it?” He adds that Alkemist has third party certification of its lab proficiency, and that third party certification can be valuable. “But it’s not transparency. A robust testing program using a highly respected lab and results shared with consumers is the most transparent way to assure consumers that they are getting what they expect when they buy a product.”

To push transparency, Alkemist encourages brands to share test results on their products with consumers, and Sudberg says the idea is gaining traction. “To make it easier, we developed a consumer-friendly test report that explains what we tested and what the results show.” Check out Alkemist’s “Next Generation Transparency” and view a sample consumer C of A atwww.alkemist.com/next-generation-transparency/.

When it comes to communicating, Sudberg says for companies that already do all the right testing, gaining consumer trust and standing apart from the crowd could simply involve updating the website to present that information for easy reference. “For others, there is a catch-up period which can sting a bit as the truth in testing is revealed. But there has never been a more important time to do that work. With demand for herbs and supplements at an all-time high as people try to stay healthy, the supply chain is strained. That’s historically when adulteration of ingredients goes wild.”

For companies looking into labs to work with, Yan has this advice: “When working with any new lab, it is most important to properly qualify them. To begin with, this can include ring testing for comparison with your current lab, sending blinded samples and requesting quality documentation such as ISO or GMP/GLP compliance. However, nothing will replace an in-person audit of the laboratory by a qualified individual to determine if the laboratory is one you should be working with. As a manufacturer or supplier, you should ultimately conduct an in-person audit of all your external laboratories to determine that they are operating according to their SOPs and have sufficient records regarding your samples to confirm that the testing is being performed as listed on their test reports or certificates of analyses.”

And if 2020 makes in-person difficult, Trosin says: “It’s important to remember that an audit is still an audit, whether it’s in-person or virtual. The same stringencies must be applied, they just need to be applied in a different fashion. What has changed is the power of the magnifying glass we as an industry are under during the current crisis. Manufacturers looking for a certification body that can perform virtual as well as in-person audits should make their choice with all the due diligence that this weighty decision requires, especially in this rapidly-changing environment.”

The bottom line from Trosin: “Look for an organization that has consistently exacting standards, applied with consistent rigor, but with the agility to adapt to a changing situation with experience and ingenuity. In terms of laboratories, qualifications and transparency are essential. You should know what your lab is going to do, how they are going to do it, and be realistic about how long it will take to get that high-level of scientific work done. Lab results and process documentation that lack depth or are promised in unrealistic turnaround times or at prices so low it is hard to believe should be a warning sign; if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.”WF