“Pick a bottle from the thousands of dietary supplements that claim to do everything from building muscles to zapping colds. There will be three things you don’t know: Is it safe, does it work, and does it even contain what the label promises,” said a report published by CNN last week.

Consumers will soon be able to check supplements for certification that they truly contain the ingredients and dosages they claim. The new seal of approval from US Pharmacopeia (USP), one of the most respected medical groups in the US, “will not mean that a supplement works, however, or even that it’s safe,” the report says. It adds that supplement watchdogs are sharply divided over whether certifying products – USP is the latest, most influential group to try – is good for consumers or not.

The report comments that the US Congress made dietary supplements exempt from most federal regulations. Private certification at least tells people they get what they pay for. Critics say certification seals mislead Americans looking for safety assurances, and that testing one batch doesn’t ensure the next bottle will be of equal quality.

“How big a problem is supplement quality? Consider this latest example: The University of California, Los Angeles, studied 12 brands of bodybuilding supplements and found only one contained the amount of androstenedione or related ingredients the bottle promised. One brand contained nearly double the amount listed, a potential danger, while another was pure fraud: it contained none,” the report reveals. It adds that one brand contained 10 milligrams of testosterone, a controlled substance supposedly available by prescription only. Such doses of steroids could seriously harm teenagers, among the biggest users of alleged sports-enhancing supplements.

Under the congressional exemption, the US$16bn dietary supplement industry gets little of the oversight the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gives medicines. Supplements can be sold without proving they are safe or that they benefit health; the FDA can try to force them off the market only after it amasses proof of people being injured. Nor does the government check whether a bottle contains the right amount of pure ingredients.

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“The certification programme by USP, the non-profit agency that sets standards of many pharmaceuticals, […] promises that supplements that win its seal will deliver the ingredients promised,” the report says. USP will not give its logo to supplements widely considered toxic, such as comfrey, chaparral or the Chinese herb compound aristolochia. However, USP, according to CNN, has not yet decided whether ephedra, “one of the US most controversial supplements because of studies linking it to heart attacks and deaths, will be put on its toxic list.”

A few smaller groups already offer certification seals, including consumerlab.com, the Good Housekeeping Institute and the bottled water-tester NSF International. Consumer Reports magazine regularly publishes rankings of supplement brand quality. “Quality testing is needed to fill the government’s gap. Without it, consumers have no information,” according to Dr Robert Russell of Tufts University, who is quoted in the report.

Furthermore, USP’s programme requires manufacturers to pay for the testing, “a clear conflict of interest. Testing a few pills and visiting a factory does not guarantee the next batch will be of high quality,” CNN says, quoting pharmacist Larry Sasich of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.  He adds that USP’s logo in particular, because it’s so widely seen on regulated drugs, “will give consumers a false sense of security.”

By Aaron Priel, just-food.com correspondent