The US Pharmacopeial Convention (sometimes referred to as US Pharmacopeia or USP) is a nonprofit organization almost 200 years old whose mission is to ensure the foods we eat as well as the medicines and supplements we take are both safe and effective. They do this by setting standards as well as verifying with independent testing. 

USP’s services are important in all areas of our health, but we especially love them for helping keep consumers safe from mislabeled or impure supplements. Let’s take a look at their history and see why they are so important.

The First US Pharmacopeial Convention

As we discussed in our twisted history of snake oil, the field of medicine in the early years of the United States was completely unregulated. Apothecaries and physicians would both make and administer all types of elixirs with no standards as to what was in them, if they actually worked, or if they were safe for human consumption. As a result, many quacks made millions and many people were killed or injured by medicines supposed to help them.

In 1820, 11 doctors assembled in Washington D.C. in an attempt to put an end to this madness by establishing standards and a formulary of medicines “most fully established and best understood”. Only 217 met this criteria, primarily botanicals, minerals, and natural drugs. 

From this convention, the first edition of the US Pharmacopeia was published, essentially a cookbook for medicines, which doctors were encouraged to follow. The USP have met every year since, publishing new volumes and expanded to become an organization establishing standard/safe ingredients for pharmaceutical drugs and foods all over the world. However, they are not a regulatory agency, a job eventually taken over by the Food and Drug Administration (aka the FDA).

Why We Need the USP

As we discussed at length in our article on the FDA, keeping medicines safe and effective is a big job. An intense lobbying effort by the supplement industry in the 1990s led to the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act of 1994, which essentially allows any vitamin or mineral already listed in the US Pharmacopeia to be sold to the public without further need to test its safety or efficacy. All they need to do is put the magic words: “These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.”

For some, especially supplement companies and alternative medicine advocates, this has meant freedom of choice for American consumers. Other medical professionals, however, worry that we may be allowing people to take supplements that don’t really work, or worse, contain ingredients that are harmful.

The Supplement Purity Problem

Whichever side of the fence you are on, it is safe to say that there are a flood of supplements sold to the general public that have basically no verification except for what the marketers promise on the label.

In 2013, Canadian researchers used DNA barcoding to test 44 herbal supplements from a variety of manufacturers. They found that 1/3 of the products contained outright substitutions and many used rice, soybean, or wheat fillers. One bottle that was supposed to be St. John’s wort was said to contain nothing but filler and another contained a strong herbal laxative.

In that study, the manufacturers were kept anonymous, but in 2015 the New York attorney general had a similar DNA test conducted on the four of the biggest sellers of supplements in the US – Wallgreens, Walmart, Target, and GNC.

This investigation produced similar findings: products labeled ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort, or valerian root contained nothing but filler, and several contained wheat despite their claims of being wheat-free. GNC has since agreed to use DNA barcoding during the manufacturing process but no word yet from the others (they were merely sent a warning letter).

Look for the USP Label

But many experts feel that DNA testing is not enough to keep consumers safe. And that’s why USP has stepped in to offer benefits for both companies and consumers looking for pure ingredients. While companies can put the “USP” initials on a supplement that they say follows the guidelines, only those companies that submit their actual product for sample testing can receive the official USP logo:

USP label

There are also USP labels for dietary ingredients, pharmaceutical ingredients, and excipients

According to the USP website, USP verified products have been rated #1 by Consumer Reports and their label appears on 400 million labels and packages.

Still, that is just a drop in the bucket as 53% of all adults take some kind of dietary supplement and just 1% of carry the USP label. 

In fact, the list of USP verified supplements is quite small:

In conclusion: US Pharmacopeia is an important agency that has kept the supplement industry in check for a long time. Because they are an independent, nonprofit third party, their seal is really the only way to ensure you are getting the supplement you want. 

Let us know what you think of USP below!