Our customers trust us, and that is no small thing. And because they trust us, they trust the companies we trust.  “If you’re stocking it,” they say, “I know it must be good.”

But is that true?              

I think it should be. I believe I am ethically bound to vet my suppliers, and with a critical eye too. I know this makes some retailers uncomfortable. After all, isn’t it better to just have faith? Well, we can—and should—have faith. But that faith must not be blind.

Which brings us to the supplement industry. Supplements are a challenge. We can’t always taste or smell quality. Competing claims can be daunting. Technical and medical jargon can be intimidating. 

So, where do we start?

Start by losing any embarrassment about asking “dumb” questions: ignorance is not the same as stupidity.  When you don’t understand something, ask. And then, be like a two-year-old and keep asking. At the end of the day, there’s nothing that shouldn’t make sense to you. If there is, something is wrong. So keep asking.

Beyond that, here’s what I look for:

1. Companies should be able to validate their claims, without exception. If they say it, they should support it. If their product “absorbs better,” they should be able to say why. If it “absorbs 127.6% better,” there should be unambiguous data. Absorbs better than what? Under what conditions? How is absorption measured?   

Saying something without cause is the same as making stuff up.  A company that is careless about the truth outside a bottle, will be careless about truth inside a bottle.

2. Companies should be able to provide certificates of analysis for their products. This is another way of validating claims.

When you ask for a COA, some companies may be surprised, even resistant, at first.  Just explain you’re a retailer exercising due diligence.  They may allude to vague legal or confidentiality issues. Don’t be deterred. 

Now when you look at it…A certificate of analysis should be two things: 1) a certificate (signed, dated, batch-numbered); and 2) it should indicate analysis (testing methods, precise numerical values or thresholds of detection). The COA should apply to your bottle. It may be from a copacker, but it should not be from a raw materials supplier! In my experience, the most common lapse among supplement companies is when they trust, but don’t verify, their own suppliers.  

Then what? Look for red flags. Like, is the COA too perfect? Is it from 10 years ago? Does it even match the bottle? You’d be surprised how much companies expose themselves with transparently problematic COAs. Earlier this year, a probiotic beverage company proudly showed me a COA that flatly contradicted their own label claim. They were as surprised as I was!

3.  Do they control their own production? Nothing wrong if they don’t, but you want to ask who does, and how they vet their suppliers.

4. Especially among herb companies, there should be occasional out-of-stocks. Nobody has quality raw materials all the time.

5. Do they spell the names of their herbs right? 

6. Are their reps more than just spokesmodels

7. Do you hit a brick wall when you try to get someone on the phone

8. Are they in the circle of trust? i.e. do actual herbalists use this herb company? What are their trade association memberships? Do people you trust, trust them?

9. Do they know the industry, or just trends? 

10. If you raise a concern, are they interested in addressing it?   

12. Are their labels clear and non-misleading?  If they claim a standardized extract, do they list the standardization?  If they use Echinacea, do they list what species, and what plant part?  When they use words like “food,” “natural,” “proven,” “non-GMO,” “third-party,” and “vegan,” do they mean what your customers think they mean?

13. What is their return policy?  Do they stand behind their products?   

Does all this seem daunting, or like too much work?  I assure you, it’s work that’s worthwhile. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to our customers. And we owe it to the majority of clean vendors in our industry, to not let somebody else’s hollow marketing overshadow their good work. WF


Adam Stark, co-owner, supplement manager, chief miscellaneous officer at Debra's Natural Gourmet.


Published on WholeFoods Magazine Online, 9/25/15