Transparency is increasingly touted as a goal for the dietary supplement industry and companies following best practices. Industry leaders are not the only ones encouraging companies to be more transparent; increasingly, the consumer marketplace is also demanding to see behind the curtain of how companies’ products are produced, where their ingredients are sourced, and whether their practices are quality-controlled, sustainable, ethical, and responsible. For all the hype about transparency, however, there is one segment of the industry that could bear improvement in this area: analytical labs. One analytical lab Nutritional Outlook interviewed at October’s SupplySide West trade show talked about a lack of transparency in the analytical lab realm and about what it is doing to personally help solve the problem.
First, there is the issue of transparency from the analytical lab itself. Elan Sudberg is CEO of Alkemist Labs (Garden Grove, CA). According to Sudberg, whom Nutritional Outlook interviewed at SupplySide West, many analytical labs that dietary supplement companies use to test their products aren’t as forthcoming as they could be in sharing what testing methods they use. This information is crucial to companies in case they need to test samples again for verification.
Sudberg said that Alkemist Labs makes it a mission to be as transparent as possible in the reports generated for clients, making sure to disclose all test methods. “We say, ‘Here’s everything. You can see it in our reports. You should get your answer here if you want to challenge our method. You know everything we do.’ And a lot of other labs don’t play that game,” Sudberg said. “In fact, it’s hard to even get their chemists on the phone to explain how they got that number because they’re so busy with everything else.”
But that’s not where transparency stops, Sudberg said. Companies should also be able to share the results of their testing with the retailers they work with and with consumers who buy their products. “It’s my strong belief that consumers want more data, especially the next generation of consumers,” Sudberg said. “The next generation wants to know more about their products—where the chicken was raised, where the ginkgo was grown, all that stuff.”
But there isn’t always a quick and easy way for a company to extrapolate the scientific data from a Certificate of Analysis (CofA) report from a lab in a way that the layman consumer can understand. That’s why, at this year’s SupplySide West show, Alkemist Labs introduced what it calls the Next Generation Transparency initiative that makes the company’s high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and high-performance thin-layer chromatography (HPTLC) reports easier for the public to understand.
Alkemist Labs makes available to companies a simplified, consumer-friendly version of test results for product lots, making it easier for companies to then pass this information along to the public. The simplified report states: 1) what material was tested, 2) what the conclusion of the test was (e.g., “Test results show that this sample is confirmed to have characteristics consistent with Dioscorea villosa rhizome”), and 3) a brief overview of the test performed. It also provides a simple breakdown of the testing process and an explanation of how to understand the information in the report. (Companies also still get the full, complex version of the report—or the “nerd version of the report,” as Sudberg called it.)
A typical CofA is too complex for the average consumer to quickly interpret, Sudberg said. “The problem is that consumers don’t know what the hell they’re looking at when they look at these reports, so we essentially assembled kind of the Reader’s Digest of a Certificate of Analysis so pretty much everyone can understand it.”
Not sharing this data with the public is a missed opportunity, Sudberg said. After all, he said, if a company is doing the responsible thing and paying for high-quality testing, why not take advantage of the opportunity to show consumers, by sharing the data, that the company is controlling quality?
“A lot of labs will share a minimal amount of information, and then the actual report will go into the drawer of a mid-level quality person at a company,” he said. “So the company will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on quality per year, and the results just go into a drawer.” At the most, he said, some companies will share some minimal quality data on their websites, noting that they use good labs, for instance, “but that’s about it. It’s really nothing,” he said. “To me, this is marketing spend that’s not being talked about. That’s data that’s already paid for, and if it’s good, then share it.”
Sudberg said that Alkemist Labs designed its consumer-friendly CofA report to be easy for companies to pick up directly and use as is if they wish.
“The idea is that the customer, my customers, whether they are in B2B or B2C, will take this report and put it on their website,” he said. Or, Alkemist could post it to its own website and companies could share it that way. Blockchain technology might also find an opportunity here, Sudberg said, as a means of posting and preserving the data.
There still aren’t a lot of companies whose transparency initiatives rise to the level of sharing testing data with the public. Nutritional Outlook has reported on two companies making results public: Gaia Herbs (with its Meet Your Herbs program) and Amazon (with its Amazon Elements supplement line). These companies are using ID codes or QR codes to direct consumers to their websites to trace back product information.
Consumers might not even choose to view that information, Sudberg said, and that’s not the point. The point is making that information available to consumers if they want it. “The company can say, ‘Here’s all the data. You want it? It’s there.’ It’s enough that they are offering it. It’s not about whether they’re gonna click; it’s the opportunity to click that consumers want.” This opportunity alone makes consumers feel more secure in the quality of the company and its products, knowing that the company is willing to draw back the curtain.
Transparency also establishes a clear way of distinguishing good companies and poor ones, Sudberg said.
“The transparency platform is just about sharing data. The question that I challenge people with is, ‘Why would you not share your lab and the reports you get from your lab?’ I’ve asked this question in the panels I’ve spoken on and no one has any good answers, so I have three I’ve come up with,” he said. “The three reasons why you’re not going to share your lab: 1) Because you’re using a terrible one, so you’re not going to share that, 2) Because you’re not using a lab, which is maybe worse than using a terrible one, and 3) The only reason that I’ve heard other than those two is that they don’t want the great lab to get busy with all these customers because now you’ve disclosed who they are. Well, to me, that’s a stupid answer, so I’m left with no reasons why you would not share your lab, no reason why you wouldn’t share the reports with everyone. So that’s why I’m challenging the industry to say, ‘Let’s take it out of the closet. It’s time.’”