These days, it’s not enough to read a few five-star reviews or even the label on the bottle before buying a supplement. Chances are, you’ve got questions. And thankfully, many of the brands in the biz are making it easier for you to know exactly what you’re buying.
“The majority of the players in the supplement industry are passionate about providing transparency to the end consumer,” says Darrin Petersen, the founder and CEO of LifeSeasons supplements. “Unfortunately, there is the rare bad apple putting profits ahead of efficacy and safety. We’re getting better at weeding them out and supporting the FDA in taking them down,” he says, “but we’re also learning to empower our customers with more information and clearer messaging so they can make smarter choices.”
With tens of thousands of supplement brands in the space, the industry as a whole needed to step up its transparency game to help consumers shop with more confidence. So initiatives like New Hope’s Inside The Bottle started up, which gathered the leading companies from across the supply chain to define industrywide best practices on transparency over the course of several years.
mbg spoke with a few of the companies involved about some of the recent efforts to be a more transparent industry—and there’s a lot to be excited about.
1. They’re getting support from modern science and medicine.
Supplement skeptics have long argued that if you eat well, you can get all the nutrients you need from food. But we now know that even the healthiest diets have gaps, in part due to soil degradation that is causing our food to be less nutrient-dense than ever.
“Modern medicine is catching up and acknowledging that many of the chronic conditions people are struggling with can be traced back to poor dietary and lifestyle choices,” says Petersen. “And they’re coming around to the idea that natural products can be a powerful tool for correcting underlying deficiencies, supporting the body’s natural immune response, and more—even for those with healthy diets.”
He continues: “Looking at the body as a whole system rather than as individual parts is now being championed by very prominent doctors and world-renowned researchers.” And according to Petersen, it helps that the supplement industry is starting to speak their language: Some manufacturers like LifeSeasons are using double-blind, placebo-controlled trials to back the efficacy of their supplement products.
2. They’re rethinking all that plastic (phew).
That’s what Scott Steinford, managing partner at Trust Transparency Center, a supply-chain consulting firm, mentioned in a phone interview. Dietary supplements are commonly packaged in single-use plastic bottles—and there’s no denying they come with lots of empty airspace.
But that might start to change. “China isn’t taking our recycled garbage anymore, specifically our plastic,” Steinford said. So what happens when the supplement industry is growing at the same time as plastic waste? “We’re looking to find innovative ways to solve this, like using refillable bottles with flat-pack replacement packs that can be sent in the mail.”
The way he sees it, that’s an example of today’s forward-thinking supplement industry: “We’re dedicated to proactively addressing the issues confronting our consumers both in terms of healthcare and marketplace. We try to stay in front of the concerns rather than react to them.”
3. They’re answering our questions in really cool ways.
QR codes are just the beginning. When consumers started asking for specifics about their supplements, certain manufacturers earned their trust not just by responding publicly, but also by tapping into opportunities like QR codes (popular in Europe and Asia)—beyond what fits on that FDA-mandated label. Though a massive undertaking, augmented reality—or "having a holographic personal discussion from the bottle to the consumers,” according to Steinford—might be a future iteration of this.
For now, there’s a lot you can learn about what exactly is in your supplement and who’s behind the ingredients. Companies across the supply chain are providing extensive details about quality on their websites, from links to published clinical studies to video tours of their farms, labs, and manufacturing facilities.
One ingredient supplier, Sabinsa, partners with hundreds of small farmers in India—and they understand that bringing the experience to the customer is a great way to walk the transparency walk. “Since we can’t fly consumers over to India to visit the farms themselves,” says Shaheen Majeed, President Worldwide of Sabinsa, “we’ve brought a number of reporters over who have then written articles about what they witnessed. We’ve also made videos of the farmers and their communities so consumers can see the farms where many of the herbs we use for making our ingredients are grown. I think it helps when consumers know something about the people behind the ingredients and hear them talking about what they do.”
We want to give the consumer all the information they need and want, but not so much as to cause confusion.
4. They’re keeping it simple.
Having information is great; understanding it all is a different story. “If you’re in the industry, being ‘totally transparent’ requires a whole different level [of knowledge] than if you’re on the outside,” says Steinford. What he means is that it’s possible to hit a point of TMI, where all that info is no longer actually helpful. “At Trust Transparency, we define ‘transparency’ as ‘do no harm’—we want to make sure we give the consumer all the information they need and want, but not so much as to cause confusion.”
From the industry’s point of view, that’s one of the concerns about transparency: When it comes to certain questions around, say, extraction processes and biochemical reactions, at some point “the answers are so technical that we’re raising more questions than answers,” Steinford says. “My dream is to answer all the questions that need to be asked to ensure the optimal amount of awareness and education.”
Before You Buy: 6 Questions To Ask A Supplement Brand
The most important thing to know is that we as consumers can—and should!—ask questions about our supplements. Here’s what to ask to know if a brand is running its business with integrity and with the health of the customer ahead of the bottom line. (A company’s contact info should be readily available on its website.)
- Where do you source your ingredients?
- Are farmers and workers fairly compensated?
- How are the ingredients made?
- How are the finished products made, and where?
- What kind of testing is done to confirm I’m buying what I think I’m buying?
- What kind of research has been done on these ingredients, and do your products contain the amounts that show results?
Look up the ingredients and products online to see if these questions are being answered (and if not, ask away!). Thanks to initiatives like New Hope Network’s Inside the Bottle program, it’s clear that the players across the supplement industry’s supply chain are rallying around one goal: empowering consumers to buy safe, regulated, effective products—and they’re doing their part. Ultimately, the power is in our hands to make informed decisions and feel good about the products we add to our own health and wellness routines.