Supplement Safety: What You Need to Know about—and More

Plant test tube_0One of the most prominent testing laboratories does not appear to us to be either independent or impartial. says its stated mission is “To identify the best quality health and nutritional products through independent testing.” Unfortunately, their claim to independence does not appear to us to be valid. (CL) approaches dietary supplement makers and asks them to enroll in its “voluntary” testing program—for a fee. CL doesn’t publicly disclose its fee schedule, but we know that one company was charged over $4,000 to test a single product. Companies that pay the fee are guaranteed that if one of their products passes the testing under their Voluntary Certification Program, it gets listed on the site and may carry the CL Seal of Approval—and if it fails the testing, the product will never be identified publicly because the results are “proprietary to the manufacturer”!

However, companies that do not agree to pay for the voluntary certification program risk having their products tested anyway through the firm’s “product review program.” If they fail the test, those failures will be publicized on’s website and in the media, with complete details for sale in CL’s Product Review Technical Reports.

This arrangement strikes us as nothing short of scandalous. It sounds like, “Pay up, and you won’t have to worry about the results. Don’t pay up, and you may be exposed to bad publicity.” What kind of game is this?

You might guess from the name “ConsumerLab” that the company was an actual testing facility. But CL actually farms out its product testing. Although the company admits it’s a “third party group” certifying the quality of dietary supplements, CL does not identify the laboratories it uses. Does the company do an annual audit of the labs it uses to make sure they are following Good Laboratory Practices and otherwise operating up to standard? We don’t know, and they’re not saying. Despite all this, CL is often quoted by mainstream media as being experts on supplement safety and testing.

While there are no truly independent certification bodies, some nutritional supplement companies are helping the industry achieve greater transparency when it comes to the manufacturing quality of their products. Emerson Ecologics, for example, has created the Emerson Quality Program, a voluntary certification program for supplement makers that requires documentation audits, product testing, and annual on-site audits. Practitioners and patients can view details about the product’s production processes, raw material qualification and testing, and finished product verification and testing.

Of course, consumers need to inform themselves not only about a product’s safety but, as we noted last fall, about whether they are taking the right form of the supplement, whether it is natural or synthetic, whether there are co-factors that must be taken with it, and whether they are taking the right amount.
In addition:

  • Always read the label. One way to compare ingredients in different products is by using the Dietary Supplements Labels Database, maintained by the National Library of Medicine.
  • Do your research or talk to a health professional. Some supplements interact with one another and with different medications—sometimes well, and sometimes not! Moreover, some supplements should be taken in combination with others; for example, calcium needs to be taken with vitamins D3 and K2, or the calcium may migrate to the heart or circulatory system where it does damage, rather than to the bones where it is needed. A trained health professional can offer important advice.
  • Talk to your supplement manufacturer. A reputable supplement manufacturer will always have a phone number where they can answer your questions about their ingredients, including where they come from and what safety procedures are in place.
  • Check the FDA’s database of supplements illegally spiked with prescription drugs. This database warns the public about tainted supplements—the “bad actors” of the industry—that contain illegal pharmaceuticals or deceptively labeled ingredients. These products may be promoted for weight loss, sexual enhancement, and bodybuilding. The FDA also offers an RSS feed so consumers can be kept up to date with late-breaking additions to the database.

Supplement safety is a complex subject. For more information, see our article on the subject.
Despite the complexities, there are reasons to have confidence in supplements as a whole. Mainstream media like to portray the world of nutritional supplements as the Wild West, with nothing to protect the unwary consumer. This charge may have something to do with the vast flow of drug company advertising. Without it, mainstream media would arguably be bankrupt. But in any case, the charge is false. Supplements and supplement manufacturing are highly regulated.

More importantly, supplements also appear to be among the safest consumer products on the market. As we noted last summer, the US National Poison Control Center’s latest report records only a single death concurrent with supplement use—an “unknown dietary supplement or homeopathic agent”—with no deaths reported before 2009.

That same report shows that, of all products to which we are exposed that might cause harm, pharmaceutical drugs caused 80% of fatalities. More than 100,000 calls to Poison Control Centers, 56,000 emergency room visits, 2,600 hospitalizations, and nearly 500 deaths each year are attributed to Acetaminophen (Tylenol). Acetaminophen overdoses are the number one cause of acute liver failure (ALF) in the United States; they account for 50% of all cases of ALF and carry a 30% mortality rate.

The bottom line appears to be that drugs are highly dangerous while supplements in general are not. Regulation has not made drugs safe, but supplements are regulated as well.


  1. I was a subscriber to ConsumerLabs. When I decided not to renew, the company went ahead and charged my credit card for renewal anyway even though I did not authorize this. They removed the charge after I complained.

  2. I used Emerson Ecologics for years…but …they became too expensive.

  3. Dear ANH-USA:
    I have just read your article on and was dismayed to learn about their analysis
    methods as I have relied on their results in the past when choosing whose supplements to buy.
    How do I find a really reliable source to make an informed decision as I do take many supplements
    and while I know several of the most trustworthy brands, I tend to shop at web sites like Puritan for common vitamins and minerals as they are cheaper and Puritan seems to have a good reputation. I buy for the more unusual supplements from health food stores.
    I would greatly appreciate your comments. Thank you for any information you may be able to give me.
    Lisa Folk

    1. I read your comment and this sounds like me. I’m about ready to quit all vitamins because I hear so many different things–this vitamin is good for you–but too much is bad so when you find out anything, e-mail me [email protected] Thanks, Mary

  4. I for one, am grateful that there is a “” as it has helped me select from discount companies that have products that are both affordable and have passed the testing done through Consumer Lab. There aren’t a lot of ways to know if a product has in it what they are claiming to have in it and this is one of the few ways to know. On the subject of the fees charged, the organization has to be able to support its activities somehow and the cost of becoming a member is probably not enough to do so. I far prefer this method of testing products to having the government getting involved with it’s demands and charges to the company! I have no doubt that if the FDA had control the supplement companies would have to provide proof of outrageously expensive tests proving that the product is absolutely safe… opposed to just not containing the exact amount of the product that is on the label.

    1. Unfortunately, the FDA cannot be trusted either. They are linked with the big pharm companies and alike. They have shown themselves to be very UN-trustworthy. There are stories upon stories of incidences that reveal this fact. Therefore, a good rule of thumb is to find a good pharmaceutical grade supplement, preferably with no additives such as magnesium stearate, etc. As a beginner years ago, I found an excellent resource to be Dr. Russell Blaylock, a retired neurosurgeon who is hesitant to promote supplement companies but on occasion if he finds something that is truly valuable and what they claim the supplement to be, will refer people to that company. However, if that still makes you uncomfortable, all I can suggest is that you find a good integrative physician in the alternative medical field who will have good resources. Wish you the best.

  5. Awhile back i bought a year’s worth of consumer labs and it seemed to me they were testing brands i never even heard of and certainly a miniscule amount of the ones i was using..needless to say i didn’t renew my membership.

    1. You took the words right out of my mouth. That’s exactly right. First seen it on OZ show, then I signed up with Consumer Labs, then cancelled within a month.

  6. The above article states that calcium has to be taken with vitamin K2 and D3. This is not true. The human body is not that stupid. People will have stores of vitamin D3 and K2 that can be used when needed. One need not take vitamin D3 and K2 simulataneously with calcium. If that were true, every person I give IV calcium to in the hospital would be dead. Check your facts.

  7. When I belonged to the HSI forum about five years ago, this was discussed even back then. Their testing of supplements has been questionable for some time, And back then you had to pay to see their results, don’t know if it’s still that way or not.

  8. Thanks for the excellent article. I first heard of Consumer Lab on the Dr. Oz show, and the company made an offer to those watching the show. By linking to the Dr. Oz website, viewers could sign up to get free reports on 4 popular supplements. When I signed up to view the free report, of course I had to provide my name and email. It was an opportunity for the company to send me requests to join so that I could get reports on other supplements. Their soliciting for customers didn’t bother me…hey, they’re a business trying to make money. However, their method of “choosing” which supplements they review as you outline in your article does bother me. If their practice is to put pressure on companies so the companies can get good reviews on some products and hide the reviews of not so good products, I don’t want anything to do with Consumer Lab. This really sounds like extortion, and makes their reviews less credible.

  9. Way back in the early 1920’s there was an organization that would provide, “protection” to all the shopkeepers. Joining was mandatory if you wanted your shop to survive.
    Sounds like an updated version; no physical destruction, but the reputation is destroyed. One government official named Elliot Ness was vigilant in ridding them from our society. Unfortunately, i government is now part of this updated version or corruption.

  10. While your notion is accurate that dietary supplements are generally very safe, it is inaccurate to claim that supplements are “highly regulated”.
    Fact is that there is NO approval of supplements for safety or quality BEFORE they get marketed. Fact is that the FDA (by their own admission!) is inadequately enforcing the policies of supplement regulation.
    This isn’t an environment that qualifies for being “highly regulated”.
    For more detailed information of the state of supplement regulation consider reviewing this article at

  11. The ANH is not impartial either, so this appears to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Historically, the ANH has displayed blatant opposition to regulation of vitamins and supplements and thus, it makes sense that they would oppose ANY organization that tests such products. Furthermore, the ANH is funded, in large part, by vitamin and supplement manufacturers, some of which may have been negatively affected by a CL report.

    1. I disagree on the premise regarding FDA regulations. If supplements were ever to be regulated it wouldn’t be long before a doctor’s prescription would be required to buy them. THAT’S the reason supplement companies and consumers want nothing to do with government regulations in that area.
      People have been safely taking supplements for decades, without problems. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  12. I am more interested in whether consumerlabs can be trusted when they give their “stamp of approval” on a product. Does anyone have evidence that says they can or cannot be trusted in that regard?
    There are usually enough “approved vendors” to choose from.
    I don’t particularly like it if it is true that they hide bad results if they had charged the vendor to do the testing in the first place. However, I can understand how that might lead to more products being tested and possibly less user fees.
    It is best to identify both “good” and “bad” products, but identifying only “good” products is far superior to nokthing. Is there any better source than consumerlabs to identify “good” products?

    1. Consumers Union (the parent) makes a big deal that they don’t accept advertising. They are trading on that for their Consumers Labs, which seems to be double dealing. I won’t renew with them because I can trust them to be impartial in their reviews.

      1. Consumer Reports is not in any way connected with Consumer Labs, Inc. There is no relationship at all.Consumer Labs charges a fee to supplement manufactures to ‘test” their supplements. After doing some research on Google and Bing, I no longer have confidence in their testing results. I will not renew my subscription.

  13. I am now not ppositive where you’re getting your info, however good topic.
    I needs to spend some time finding out much more or figuring out more.
    Thank you for magnificent information I used to be on the
    lookout for this information for my mission.
    My site … supplement facts

  14. Your concerns are irrelavent. The natural products industry has stonewalled on product verification for decades. It’s a dirty business filled with carpetbaggers, frauds, rotten practices. Every time some protocol is proposed to weed out the scum parties rally around and move the goalposts of objections. The only permanent losers are consumers.
    Stop making excuses, stand up in the open and do the right thing. Otherwise, it will take a Royal Commission or Congressional investigation. Seize files, put people under oath and then in jail.
    I’ve worked 40 years in this business so I know there’s enough to fuel a firestorm. And so do you.

  15. While their business practices may be mercenary, I don’t see any evidence that their testing is inaccurate. When they say a vitamin contains what it claims to contain, or contains unsafe amounts of lead, they are the best source of information. While GMP certification is fine, it appears that they do not test the content of supplements, they just verify laboratory practices.

  16. Ha! This says that supplements are highly regulated. Totally false. Unlike w/regulation of food, there is no proof that a supplement contains what it purports to. In fact, the New York Attorney General recently tested a random selection of supplements and very few had any or all advertised ingredients–but DID find many w/allergen-causing ingredients like nuts–which caused big chains to initiate recalls. Until Sen. Orrin Hatch allows legislation to regulate supplements we have to rely on our own research. This Congress won’t act but after 2016 if there’s a Democrat majority in either house (better if both), I recommend that everyone contact their Congressional Members and urge legislation requiring FDA test supplement ingredients.

  17. I don’t mean to get off the subject and I also realize this is a
    several years later posting, I wanted to comment on Susan’s post.
    Unfortunately, the FDA cannot be trusted either. As once a staunch
    supporter of the FDA, believing they had our best interests at heart, I
    have over time come to realize nothing could be further from the
    truth–with all due respect to the FDA. As raj pointed out, more annual
    deaths have occurred as a result of drug side effects and adverse
    reactions than supplements put together! Unfortunately, doctors don’t
    know the effects of many drugs they prescribe (I have personally
    experienced that) by virtue of the fact that they are so busy trying to
    care for their patients and don’t have the time to research all the
    medications they prescribe. If the FDA had genuine concern for the
    consumer, they would put a halt or limit the drug companies with their
    advertising the way they do — from TV directly to the consumer. As a
    result of those ads, stats show that drug sales have literally
    skyrocketed — right into the pockets of big pharma and at risk to the
    consumer. Lest I be accused of being anti-drug, I’m not, however, it
    has grown wayyy out of control. I take a couple of medications for
    which I am grateful (so I am not anti-drug) but I do believe that the
    FDA has allowed the pharmaceutical industry to get away with far too
    much to the detriment of “the people.” And, fwiw, drugs are being
    prescribed for conditions that were never intended to be used for yet
    the FDA has allowed it. My sister-in-law’s rellie was one of those fatal
    stats. I have done far better on supplements for my autoimmune diseases
    and am deeply grateful. But I have spent considerable time researching
    the brands I buy and I read a lot by experts in the field that have
    taught me what I know.
    A good rule of thumb is to find a good
    pharmaceutical “grade” supplement, preferably with no unnecessary
    additives such as magnesium stearate, ‘natural’ flavorings, etc. Or,
    find a good integrative physician either online or locally and learn
    from them. Their expert knowledge has taught me to know what to look
    for in supplements and what to avoid. This article was excellent and
    affirmed my concerns and suspicions about ConsumerLabs. I plan to stick
    with the physicians that I’ve learned to trust. Best regards,

  18. ANH-USA fails to mention that it is a shill organization that lobbies and sues on behalf of supplement companies. Their goal is to encourage claims with no scientific basis and suppress scientific information that paints supplements in a negative light. Go ahead and block this comment here if you’d like, but it won’t stop me from posting it elsewhere. You need to be up front with your readers.

  19. I’m convinced my vitacost (VC) milk thistle is a placebo and have had similar thoughts about other VC supps. I am a member of Consumerlab (CL) despite knowing their tactics. I believe there to be good info there and it’s not that expensive. However, CL promotes VC and yet VC has a product for nearly every supplement CL tests, yet VC shows up in hardly any of the tests (yes, there are a few). Not seeing VC milk thistle in the CL milk thistle test results simply allows me to read between the lines (whether it’s true of not) and I will be doing the same for other brands/products they promote that don’t show up in their tests. How bad could it be that they don’t want you to see the results? Therefore, if the products they promote do not show up in the results with an “Approved” status or an acceptable reason to fail (maybe slightly off the mark), then it’s worse than a failure and I’m not buying them.

    1. Hear, hear! Vitacost looks to be a great value, but they won’t share with consumers the results of testing a particular product. There should be a data sheet available for each product! Ideally, a recent one that relates to the supplier or producer currently in use.

  20. “…but supplements are regulated as well.”
    In what way are they regulated? In the same way as food manufacturers might be?

  21. I am through with Consumer Labs…I really enjoyed their information but feel their membership info. is way incorrect….I subscribed for two years back in 2015 for $59 per year to be resubscribed every year automatically! Ha….now after a conversation with the firm I am told that each of the first two years they resubscribed but at $62 a year and Now they only resubscribe for ONE YEAR at $78….WHOA….what a rip off…..Where and Who does this type of drug testing get done OTHER than Consumer Labs??? I know none of my doctors whether medical or Integrative & etc. that I have gone to trust Consumar Labs and have scoffed that anyone would trust them completley.

  22. I think your reporting is completing misleading. I have subscribed to ConsumerLab for 2 years and the studies they report are conducted by outside groups that are found in journals and publications which are referenced at the end of each study’s abstract. You can then google the full article or study. I have never seen a study on their website that was perform ConsumerLab. You should do better due diligence before reporting negative articles that bear no resemblance to the truth

  23. If a supplement is made of good quality ingredients then why should the manufacturer be worried about whether or not CL tests their product? They don’t have to pay the fee if they have faith in their product. I really don’t get the purpose of this article. It sounds as if CL is actually testing manufacturers to see if they have faith in the product. If the manufacturer is nervous about being tested they may pay hoping for a good report and CL has made money to support their cause.

Comments are closed.