In theory, the quality and integrity of food supplements falls to national trading standards authorities and EU institutions like the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), but Dr Anthony Booker, UK lecturer in Chinese herbal medicine and medicinal plant sciences, said that there was “no harmonisation across Europe”.
He said that policing of supplements was being dealt with at a national level, with varying degrees of effort and success. Germany, he said, was doing “a very good job”, whereas Holland was “more relaxed”.
In the UK, despite the formation of the Food Standards Agency's (FSA) National Food Crime Unit in 2015, Dr Booker said there was little evidence of any regulatory scrutiny.
In research conducted at UCL School of Pharmacy with various partners, Dr Booker and colleagues found that between 20 and 40% of unregistered products were either poor quality, adulterated or carrying false label claims.
The products analysed were turmeric, saw palmetto, milk thistle, rhodiola, ginkgo and St John's wort supplements and unregistered herbal medicines, and Dr Booker reported they “found examples of adulteration and incorrect labelling in all cases”.
Where’s the back-up?
“The fact that these poor quality supplements are still widely available suggests that although there are standards in place, there is little regulatory enforcement happening,” Dr Booker told NutraIngredients.
In legal terms, botanical products can either be classed as herbal medicines or food supplements. In the EU, the Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive (THMPD) provides some consumer protection for herbal medicines.
“Herbal medicines should be fine provided that they are registered under the THMPD and hold a Traditional Herbal Registration (THR). These products are regulated by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency [in the UK] and our own tests didn't find any problems,” said Dr Booker.
Although it is a legal requirement for products marketed as herbal medicines to have a THR, he said problems can still arise when these products are sourced through the internet and particularly when originating outside of the EU.
However, it is food supplements that are the biggest issue, according to Dr Booker.
“Food supplements are more problematic as they are not well regulated and we have found that they often do not contain what is claimed on the label.
"The issue is complicated by the fact that the same plant species can be marketed as a herbal medicine or a food supplement depending mainly on the claims being made for it or sometimes on its chemical components,” he explained.
The upshot of this is that people are using products that aren’t what is claimed on the label. At best this results in consumers not receiving the product they paid for. At worst, it could result in a professional athlete being disqualified from competition for taking a banned substance or a severe health issue.
Replicate THR scheme
He suggested that a similar model to the THR scheme could be developed within the food industry.
“Food supplements certainly need better regulation. Ideally this should start from within the industry itself, and the better companies can and do produce good quality products, but any self-regulating scheme needs some kind of external watchdog, mainly to identify and take action against offending companies.
"This would be in the interests of the whole industry as poor quality products are cheap to produce and so present unfair competition to the legitimate side of the industry."