AOAC International: Making Supplements Safer through Better Testing

When purchasing a new supplement from an unfamiliar company, there are two assumptions you should never make: that it’s safe and that it’s effective.

While there are plenty of conscientious, ethical supplement companies out there, there are a few bad eggs too. These companies enter the industry with dollar signs on their mind and little regard for customer safety.

Unfortunately, that means if you buy a supplement on a whim, you could end up taking something that hasn’t been properly tested for safety and effectiveness. Even supplement companies that aren’t intentionally trying to mislead consumers unknowingly test their products’ safety with methods that don’t produce accurate results.

To protect consumers like you from poorly tested supplements, there’s been a strong push in recent decades to create official methods for testing the quality and effectiveness of the ingredients that end up in your supplements. At the forefront of that push is AOAC International.

What is AOAC International?

AOAC International is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1884. Back then, it was known as the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists, and its primary purpose was to create standardized testing methods for agricultural fertilizers. But over the years, it’s expanded its focus from fertilizers to foods, drugs, supplements and more.

Today, AOAC International provides an important service to the supplement industry and consumers. It identifies the best possible methods for testing supplement ingredients and publishes these methods so supplement companies can use them. Testing methods that receive the AOAC stamp of approval become an “Official Method of Analysis” and are added to the organization’s book of testing standards, the Official Methods of Analysis of AOAC International.

When a testing method receives “Official Method of Analysis” status, it becomes a gold standard that supplement companies can confidently use to gauge the safety and effectiveness of their product. But establishing an official method for a supplement ingredient isn’t an easy process. It requires a huge commitment of time and energy from stakeholders in government, academia, the supplement industry and the public. 

The Official Method Process

AOAC starts the process by asking stakeholders to submit ingredients that they believe most need an official testing method. The AOAC prioritizes these submissions based on factors like available funding, the ingredient’s market share, the existence of testing methods to choose from, and the number of current or future National Institute of Health studies in the works for the ingredient.

Next, AOAC works with panels of stakeholders to determine what specifications a testing method needs to meet to make that testing method accurate and consistent. They want to make sure it will work under different conditions in different laboratories. These specifications are called standard method performance requirements (SMPRs). AOAC International then asks people to submit possible testing methods, and an expert panel of scientists reviews the submissions to determine which methods meet the SMPRs best.

Once these experts choose a testing method that best meets the SMPRs, it becomes a “first action” official method. That means the testing method has the AOAC’s approval and can be used confidently by supplement companies. But the expert panel still monitors a “first action” official method for a while to see how it performs in other tests and other laboratories. If the method’s consistently successful after two years of use, it’s promoted to a “final action” official method. If it’s not consistent, it’s tweaked a bit before it’s finalized.

Do Supplement Companies Use AOAC Methods?

Right now, there’s no law requiring supplement companies to use AOAC testing methods, or any other official testing methods for that matter. Companies can establish their own internal methods for testing the quality, efficacy and safety of their products. But there are plenty of benefits to following AOAC methods.

Companies who use AOAC methods know their product is safe, because it was tested appropriately. They also have to worry less about regulatory action from the FDA. If the FDA audits them, they can show that they use AOAC methods, which is much easier than proving that their internal testing method works. But the biggest benefit for companies using AOAC testing methods is the message they send to their customers—they prove that they’re committed to being credible, conscientious, transparent and safe.

Wondering whether your supplements use AOAC testing methods? There’s only one way to know for sure—ask. Supplement companies don’t usually mention the AOAC on their labels, so reach out to the customer service team to find out how they test the quality and safety of their supplements.