How Supplement Makers Can Set New Standards for Safety and Efficacy

Updated on February 13, 2023
The profile of man and in his head lot of pills. Headache treatment.

The consumer health industry has failed consumers. Last August, an analysis of supplements sold on Amazon uncovered the latest example of a troubling trend of inaccuracies in many of the industry’s product labels. According to the report published in the JAMA Open network, 13 of 30 product labels reviewed listed ingredients that weren’t actually in the products, and 9 contained substances that could be considered adulterated. By any standard, these findings are unacceptable. 

At a time when increasing numbers of consumers are looking to take charge of their health and proactively work to improve longevity, consumer health companies have been systematically undermining their trust. 

The simple fact is that people should be able to trust that the product they consume is the same as the one promised on the label. Yet, as the JAMA report identified, manufacturers have not held up their end of the bargain. 

However, as troubling as this trend is, there is still time for the industry to redeem itself.

The path to rebuilding trust begins with increased transparency and accountability for all consumer health companies. As members of the broader healthcare ecosystem, it is not only necessary to regain the public’s trust, but it is also a moral responsibility to pursue the highest standards for product purity, potency, and safety. By combining improved product manufacturing standards with third-party certifications and randomized, double-blind clinical trials to validate efficacy, consumer health can rebuild broken trust.

Leveraging biosynthesis technology

The industry-wide embracing of new technology is vital to meeting these new standards. Through innovations such as synthetic biology, consumer healthcare can leverage enhanced precision and control to create purer, safer, and more effective products while decreasing their environmental impact. Synthetic biology allows companies to pair the rapidly growing data surrounding natural products and human biology interactions to identify the specific plant molecules that drive therapeutic effects. From there, scientists can replicate only those molecules to provide maximum impact without ever needing to harvest the native plant.  

Many compounds found in plants are known to benefit human health. For example, the Rhodiola rosea plant is the basis of supplements for a range of uses, including boosting exercise performance and treating depression. But two primary questions have constantly challenged its utility. First, which molecule or molecules of the more than 200+ compounds in Rhodiola are responsible for its documented health effects, and second, is it ethical to continue harvesting an endangered plant for mass consumer use? We answer these questions based on human and synthetic biology and results from genomic, preclinical, and clinical research. Through this research, we can identify the primary bioactive within Rhodiola and use industrial-scale fermentation to create it sustainably. 

And the possibilities extend far beyond Rhodiola. According to McKinsey, biological innovations could revolutionize the production of more than 60% of the world’s inputs and help address 45% of the world’s disease burden. 

With biosynthesis technology, we can discover and recreate the most potent medicinal compounds from across all kingdoms of life and better harness them for applications across pharmaceuticals and consumer health. Beyond nature-identical production, biological technologies allow our team to address the underlying flaws of the molecules themselves, modifying their structures to create natural analogs, when necessary, to create the potential for improved efficacy and safety. And all without harming native plants or disrupting natural ecosystems.

Committing to rigorous testing

Beyond the fundamental manufacturing process, a driving force behind the lack of trust in consumer health is that dietary supplements are not regulated as stringently as their pharmaceutical counterparts. But supplement makers can self-enforce standards and leverage third-party validation to help regain the public’s trust.

For example, supplement makers can pursue a range of designations under the U.S. FDA code, such as new dietary ingredients (NDI) or generally recognized as safe (GRAS). These voluntary regulatory steps leverage safety assessments from independent experts to validate a product’s safety profile and promote consumer confidence. Companies can also implement randomized skip-batch purity and quality testing within their supply chains through third-party labs to ensure raw materials are consistently meeting the intended standard. Additionally, manufacturers can work alongside academic and industry peers to conduct placebo-controlled clinical trials to demonstrate to consumers that rigorous science backs claims about health benefits. 

As citizens of this earth and members of the healthcare industry, consumer health companies have a moral responsibility to ensure their products’ purity, safety, and efficacy. At the same time, we should vow to learn from mother nature, take as little as necessary from her, and do what we can to ensure her longevity and vitality because our health and planet depend on it.

Cavan Farley

Cavan Farley is Senior Vice President, Global Business Groups at DoubleRainbow Biosciences and President of Landkind, founded to develop sustainable, precision-engineered dietary supplements.