Not all supplements are created equal. For this reason, it’s essential to consider purchasing high-quality supplements from trusted sources. If you simply want peace of mind that your supplements are manufactured according to strict quality standards, third-party certifications can help guide you and your integrative healthcare practitioner in the decision-making process. Learn more about third-party certifications and some of the most common certifications you may encounter when shopping for supplements.
What are third-party certifications?
Third-party certifications are independent programs offering inspections and testing of manufacturing sites, raw materials, and finished products of various consumer goods, such as food, beverages, and dietary supplements. A manufacturer may choose to utilize a third-party certifier’s services to provide unbiased verification of their product’s quality.
Third-party certified products typically display seals for each acquired certification directly on the product’s label to help consumers make informed decisions. Manufacturers may also provide information on their website regarding any certifications they have acquired. (4)
Third-party certifications quality standards
Many third-party certifiers evaluate supplement quality based on multiple factors, such as identity, strength, and purity. (15)
Many third-party certifiers conduct routine site inspections and test finished products to ensure the supplements contain each ingredient included on the supplement facts label. Why is this important? Consumers depend on products being accurately labeled. Accurate labeling is essential for consumers who have allergies to certain ingredients or for those taking other supplements or medications that may interact with unlisted ingredients. (13) Certain populations, such as competitive athletes, also rely on accurately labeled products, considering that banned performance-enhancing ingredients may be found in some low-quality dietary supplements. (3)
Manufacturers are required to include information on the supplement facts label indicating the amount per serving of any active ingredients. Some third-party certifiers test finished products or batches to ensure that the strength, concentration, weight, and/or measure is accurately listed on the label. Having precise information is necessary because it influences serving sizes and dosages for supplements. Furthermore, inaccurate labeling may affect a product’s expected efficacy. (14)
Third-party testing can determine whether a product is free of contaminants, such as heavy metals, bacteria, or pesticides. (4) Poor quality control can increase the risk of contamination. (6) To prevent the unnecessary introduction of these potentially harmful contaminants into their products, manufacturers may utilize third-party certifiers to perform routine inspections and evaluations of their various manufacturing practices. These inspections can ensure that manufacturers are maintaining safe and sanitary operations. (17)
Common third-party certifications
Outlined below are some of the most common third-party certifications utilized by supplement manufacturers in North America.
If you avoid gluten, the naturally occurring protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, selecting products bearing a Certified Gluten-Free certification mark can help reduce your risk of exposure. Through routine manufacturing site inspections and product sampling, the FDA ensures that Certified Gluten-Free products are accurately represented and safe to consume. (18)
The National Sanitation Foundation, most commonly referred to as NSF, is an independent certification program that grants its seal of approval to products meeting purity standards. NSF evaluates products for unacceptable levels of contaminants, such as heavy metals (e.g., lead, arsenic), pesticides, and herbicides. Additionally, NSF tests products to confirm that their label accurately displays all ingredients and that the product is compliant with cGMPs. (3)
NSF also certifies sport-safe dietary supplements for competitive athletes. The NSF Certified for Sport certification process routinely tests products to confirm that they are free of contaminants, masking agents, and over 270 substances banned by major athletic organizations. (3)
Supplements, as well as food and beverages, displaying the USDA Organic certification must contain at least 95% organic ingredients according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Certified organic ingredients are grown and processed in accordance with federal requirements that outline standards for numerous factors, including soil quality, pest and weed control, use of additives, and livestock care practices. (11)
Non-GMO Project Verified
Non-GMO Project Verified is a voluntary third-party evaluation program used to designate food, beverages, and dietary supplements free of genetically modified ingredients (GMOs). Products undergo an independent evaluation and continued annual product verification process to ensure they don’t contain GMOs to obtain certification. (8)
Certified Vegan is a registered trademark used to specify foods and supplements free of animal products and animal by-products, including meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, honey, insects, and sweeteners filtered with bone char. Use of the trademark is voluntary and manufacturers must first certify their product(s) by providing detailed documentation that outlines the sources of all raw materials. Additionally, manufacturers must provide documentation that describes the manufacturing processes involved in producing the product, which is then evaluated by the Vegan Awareness Foundation. (20)
Supplement Regulation: What You Need to Know (Canada)
Supplements manufactured and sold in North America are regulated by government authorities and must meet specific quality standards. In Canada, supplements and other natural health products are regulated by the Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Directorate (NNHPD) of Health Canada under the Natural Health Products Regulations of 2004. Similar to the United States, manufacturers in Canada must hold a site license and produce supplements in compliance with Good Manufacturing Practices, which outlines specific standards for product testing, manufacturing, storage, and distribution. (5)