We would all love to have a magic machine that can tell us exactly what is in a food or a health supplement, but our current technology isn’t quite at the level of Star Trek yet. Here’s a question asked recently on Reddit/foodscience . It follows a common theme for questions asked by entrepreneurs who are investigating food and supplement business opportunities.
Question: How do I test supplements to make sure the ingredients are authentic and organic?
The Reddit poster explained that he had stumbled upon a mix of plant extracts that helped his acne and wants to make and sell a pill with those ingredients. He writes: “I sourced some plant extract manufacturers in china but I do want to test the plant extracts to check if they are actually what they are and if they are truly organic. Can someone please point me in the right direction as to how to do that?“. A food manufacturing expert suggested that he seek a contract manufacturer to make the pills for him, which he said sounded like a good idea. Then he asked “I’d feel a lot better if there was maybe a machine I could buy to check the composition of what was in there“.
Answer: I think you want a Star Trek Tricorder
I wish it was possible to buy a magic machine that will tell you what is in a product. On the other hand I am a food/supplement fraud expert so if there was such a thing I wouldn’t have a job.
Organic testing is ‘simple’. Sort of. To test for ‘organic’ status in a finished capsule supplement you can check that pesticide residues are absent. There is no technology that allows you to put a pill into a machine and ask it to look for ‘anything’, so you need to ask the machine to look for specific pesticides. The USDA perform this type of testing every year on fruit and vegetables. Each sample is tested separately for around 200 different pesticides. The USDA use a network of independent labs so it should be easy to find a lab that can test your finished product for pesticide. More on the pesticide testing program here: https://www.ams.usda.gov/datasets/pdp
Authenticity testing is not simple.
Herb-like ingredients can be tested for authenticity by an expert who looks at them under the microscope. This only works if they are not ground up too small.
Liquid extracts and soluble powders can be tested using chromatographic methods, such as HPLC and GC. In these methods the machine creates a chemical ‘fingerprint’ for the material and then compares that to the fingerprint of an authentic sample. There are two things that make it difficult: firstly you need to find a lab that knows what an authentic sample fingerprint looks like for the material you want to test (they call this ‘having a database’); secondly, these methods are best suited to single ingredients. Once you mix a whole bunch of ingredients together, if you test the mixture all the chemical fingerprints get mixed up and the machine can’t tell you which peak (which part of the ‘fingerprint’) comes from which ingredient. There are ways around this but the methods are expensive as the databases are custom-made for each finished product that is to be tested.
Unfortunately it usually comes down to trust in your suppliers and a reliance on their systems and certifications. Check all certifications to make sure they are not forged as unfortunately that is common in some countries. Do this by contacting the certifier directly.
Want help with supplement authenticity? Don’t know where to start?