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Ask Dr. Mike: What's the Best Way to Know if a Supplement Is High Quality?

Here you'll find the answers to a wealth of health and wellness questions posed by Healthy Talk fans.

Listen in because what you know helps ensure healthy choices you can live with. Today on Healthy Talk, you wanted to know:

I don't understand the testing method the Attorney General in NY had done on herbal supplements. Can you explain?

The AG had DNA barcoding done on herbal supplements, which is a process of removing the cap and running a series of tests on the powder inside to see what herbs (and other ingredients) are in there. This method is a quick, easy way to get something tested. This form of testing is actually not considered reliable for raw materials and has lots of credibility issues.

For example, let's say you're looking at a product that contains boswellia. So, essentially when you're performing a DNA barcode test, you're looking for traces of bosweallia DNA in the powder of the capsule. However, depending on how long this product has been on the shelf, if there are any preservatives in the product, or if there are any contamination issues, it can affect the outcome of the DNA barcode test.

What is the best way to know if a supplement is high quality?

The first thing you want to do is look into companies that have been around for a long time. On the back of the label, there's a manufacturing label. Don't be afraid to call and ask if they have a certificate of analysis (COA). If they don't answer you, or don't have any idea what that even is, you do not want to be purchasing or using that supplement.

If you have a health question or concern, Dr. Mike encourages you to write him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. so he can provide you with support and helpful advice.

RadioMD Presents:Healthy Talk | Original Air Date: February 9, 2015
Host: Michael Smith, MD

It’s time to “Ask Dr. Mike”. Do you have a question about your health? Dr. Mike can answer your questions. Just email at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call now: 877-711-5211. The lines are open.

So, the first question that I want to answer today is actually related to a segment that I had with Gretchen DuBeau who is the legal director for the Alliance of Natural Health, USA. So, this is about the New York Attorney General who pulled some herbal supplement products off the shelves in big stores like Target, Walgreens, and Walmart. I think there were one or two more, but, you know, big stores. Maybe even GNC was involved with this. They tested these products and then claimed that, you know, the labels were false—that they couldn’t find the specific herb that that product, at least that label, was claiming it had and there were even some other preservatives in these products that shouldn’t have been in there.

So, the question is: “I don’t understand the testing used by the New York Attorney General. Please explain.”

So, what they did is known as DNA bar code testing. I mean, just to really keep it simple, all they’re doing is, you take the product off, you take the capsule, you open it up and you take the powder that was in the capsule and you run it through some different methodologies that try to identify the DNA footprint of the herbs that are supposed to be in there. So, let’s say there’s a boswellia product. Boswellia is a wonderful anti-inflammatory. It comes from a medicinal tree. So, let’s say you take that product off. You open up the capsule and what you’re going to look for is boswellia DNA and, if it’s there, okay. Great. If it’s not there, okay. There’s an issue. The problem with this form of testing is, first of all, it’s not a standard form of testing for raw materials. Okay? It has lots of credibility issues, even within the industry itself and also within regulatory institutions. No one has really accepted DNA bar coding. It’s a quick way to get an idea of what’s in there, but it doesn’t look at levels. It doesn’t take into account how long something’s been on the shelf. There are a lot of contamination issues when you’re looking at DNA. So, DNA bar code testing just is not accepted. It’s a substandard form of testing the quality of a product. But, it’s quick. It can be done by most labs and so that’s why it’s sometimes used by the Federal regulating institutions and, in this case, the state of New York. So, it’s a methodology that’s not accepted. I mean, it is what it is. It’s not accepted.

So, what you have, then, is a report claiming that some of these products did not have the active constituents—the active herbal components in it—based on this substandard form of testing. But, mainstream media doesn’t care. They just want the headline. And, by the way, that’s exactly what the New York Attorney General did is, he released talking points. He didn’t release the actual results of the testing. This has not been published in any peer review journal or anything like that. They did their own testing using this DNA bar code substandard methodology and they released talking points—headlines—that ABC News and NBC News, even Fox, I mean, all of them, picked it up and started claiming that herbal supplements are useless. There’s nothing in them. That they’re mislabeled and so on from there. Yet, the actual report hasn’t even been released. They’re not releasing it. Of course, the supplement industry—the herbal industry—are asking for the actual results and, at this point, the New York Attorney General is holding onto them because he knows that it’s a substandard form of testing. So, it’s really becoming more of a political thing than it is about public safety or anything like that. So, there you go. It’s called DNA bar coding and it’s a quick, easy way to check for some things that might be in a product, but it’s not accepted because there are just so many issues with it--so many contamination issues with it—and so, it’s not used. No one uses it but people like the New York State Attorney General.

Okay. Let’s go on to the next question and this one is related to this. “So, what is the best way to know if a supplement is high quality?”

So, there are a few things to do here and I write about this in my book, The Supplement Pyramid: How to Build Your Personalized Nutritional Regimen. It’s available at and I have a whole chapter on how to choose a quality product. It’s really pretty simple. The first thing—and this is what I do—the very first thing I do is I stick with companies that have been around a long time because I know they have good track records. There are a whole bunch. In my book, even though I work for Life Extension, I list about 12 other companies that I really like and use: Source Naturals, New Chapter, Enzymatic Therapy, just to name a few. I mean, there are some really good companies out there making great products. They’ve been around for many, many, many years and over and over again, their products have proven to be high quality. So, number one, stick with companies that have been around. There is an issue. There are some, what you might call “fly by night” companies. They jump on, I don’t know, the latest and greatest nutrient bandwagon. They make a few products, sell it online, whatever, and then a year later, they’re gone. I mean, well, don’t buy from them. That’s what I said. Stick to the companies that have been around for 10 plus, 15 plus years. That’s number one.

Number two, on the back label, there’s a manufacturing number. There should be. If there’s not, you probably don’t want to buy that product. But, there should be a number—a phone number you can call. That’s the manufacturer of that product. Call that number and whoever answers—you can do this right in the aisle with your cell phone. Call that number. Whoever answers, you ask them for a Certificate of Analysis or you ask them if they have one. “Does this product have a Certificate of Analysis?” C-O-A. And, if the person on the other phone says, “What? What are you talking about?” you probably want to hang up and find another product. All of those companies I have in the back of my book and the ones that have been around a long time and they have great track records, they all produce a C of A for their products, their raw materials, their final label. Basically, a C of A is an analysis of the ingredients and the label. In many cases, it’s a third party lab that’s testing this for them. Okay? So, right there. Most of these companies produce C of A’s. I know Life Extension does. Very simple. Other things I like to do? I mean, I like to buy products that have nice, clean labels. What I mean by that is, you know, easy to read, front and back, the inactive ingredients are clearly listed and separated from the active constituents--the active components of the products, the dosing is clearly labeled, the serving size. I mean, the easier the label is to look at and to read and know what you’re purchasing, in many cases, that’s a good, quality product, you know? So, stick with good companies—companies that have been around for 10 plus, 15 plus, years. Go ahead and call that manufacturing number as an extra step and say, “Hey, does this product have a C of A?” Now, if they say “yes”, that’s probably all you need. It just gives you confidence in what you’re buying. Now, if you want to go a step further, which some people do, ask them to email it to you, fax it to you. Whatever. Once you get it, you can confirm it and then you can buy the product, but I don’t think you have to go that far as long as you know they have it and they’re willing to share it with you, I think that’s enough. Then, of course, you know, easy to read labels clearly identifying active components from inactive components, dose, serving size, you know, just right there. Again, it’s just building confidence and credibility in the product that you’re purchasing. So, there you go.

This is Healthy Talk on RadioMD. I’m Dr. Mike. Stay well.