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NSF Standards for Consumer Interests — drinking water and dietary supplements

Drinking Water Treatment Units
Dietary Supplements

How do you know when purchasing consumer products, such as water treatment units and dietary supplements that they are safe and meet minimum public health requirements? How can you be sure the manufacturer’s claims are true? Greta Houlahan, communications coordinator at NSF International, explains the work her organization has undertaken to develop standards for drinking water treatment and dietary supplement products — and what these documents mean to the consumer.

(Note: This article first appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of the ANSI Reporter)

As more news articles are published regarding the quality of consumer products, individuals are becoming more conscious about health and safety issues. In fact, many local governments now issue notices to customers regarding the possible presence of contaminants, such as cryptosporidium, lead and even heavy metals in such products. The combination of increased awareness and media exposure has led to more educated consumers who are better informed and who spend more time identifying reliable high-quality products. NSF International continues to gain recognition from this group, especially with regard to drinking water treatment and dietary supplement products.

Drinking Water Treatment Units

The increase in popularity of the NSF American National Standards (ANS) for drinking water treatment units (DWTU) and new NSF-developed ANS for dietary supplements is a direct result of consumers’ expanded knowledge and their need to have assurance that products impacting their lives are safe.

All NSF standards are developed by expert volunteers through NSF’s ANSI accredited consensus process and are granted the ANSI designation upon approval. NSF/ANSI standards and criteria are used extensively for consumer products and services. They are developed based on a consensus process involving all interested parties, such as government agencies, user groups, and manufacturers. The goal of standards development is to provide uniform minimum requirements for acceptance in domestic and global markets.

NSF has facilitated the development of American National Standards for the drinking water industry since the late 1960s. At that time, the DWTU industry and the Environ-mental Protection Agency (EPA) were interested in developing a standard for point-of-use water filtration devices, as no governmental agency had standards to ensure the effectiveness of such devices. NSF, a recognized standards development and third-party certification body, was asked to become a part of this process. NSF worked with industry, the Water Quality Improvement Standards and Certification Council, the EPA, state regulators and other agencies to develop the first of the NSF DWTU standards. After several years of discussion, two Drinking Water American National Standards: NSF Standard 42, Drinking water treatment units — Aesthetic effects and NSF Standard 53, Drinking water treatment units — Health effects, were adopted. Both standards have undergone multiple reviews and revisions since their adoptions ensuring they remain up-to-date with the changing needs of the marketplace and regulatory agencies.

Today, consumers rely on NSF testing and certification of these standards to evaluate products available in the marketplace. NSF/ANSI drinking water standards for drinking water treatment devices, (NSF/ANSI 42, 44, 53, 55, 58) and their corresponding certification program are recognized as the premier program in the world. NSF DWTU standards compare the contaminant reduction performance of drinking water treatment systems and provide the basis for comparing the capacity of different units, their replacement filters and the flow rate. This thorough evaluation procedure is critical, as the interest in home water treatment products has grown tremendously in the last decade.

Dietary Supplements

NSF’s process of creating new standards for emerging markets and products continues even today with a new American National Standard recently developed for dietary supplements. Like the DWTU industry, the dietary supplements industry has experienced tremendous growth in the last decade, resulting in thousands of new supplements introduced into the market. Many of these products’ contents are not verified, thus the need for consensus standards has never been greater. In 1990, sales of dietary supplements were reported to be $4.22 billion. By 2000, sales had rocketed to more than $16 billion and continue to climb. In fact, 61% of Americans report using dietary supplements on a monthly basis.

According to Purdue University, overall sales of dietary supplements increased up to 20% yearly, with total sales reported to be $17.6 billion in 2001. It is the fastest growing category of the self-medication market. There are more than 30,000 dietary supplements available on the market in the United States, and 1,000 new ones are added each year — all of which create a bewildering array of choices for the consumer. Reports state that some of these supplements do not meet label claims, while others may even be harmful. In 2000, at the request of industry and public health representatives, the NSF Joint Committee on Dietary Supplements developed a draft standard for dietary supplements to help consumers recognize safe, quality products. In February 2003, that draft standard became the first and only American National Standard (NSF/ANSI 173) for dietary supplements and for the ingredients used in dietary supplements.

Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), manufacturers are neither required to register products with FDA nor get FDA approval before producing or selling dietary supplements. Rather, the dietary supplement manufacturer must ensure that a dietary supplement is safe before marketing it and that the product label information is truthful and not misleading.

NSF/ANSI 173 helps manufacturers verify this information by ensuring that supplements and their ingredients are not adulterated with contaminants and are labeled accurately. This is important as the FDA can take action against any unsafe dietary supplement product once it appears on store shelves.


As new contaminants are discovered in dietary supplements and in drinking water, public concern regarding their safety will continue to grow. With this concern comes an increased need for standards to ensure the effectiveness and safety of such products. NSF facilitates this process by ensuring consumer products are safe and effective. Multiple products claiming to do the same thing can be confusing to the consumer; NSF sorts out that confusion. Just as NSF was asked to help the drinking water industry monitor drinking water treatment unit devices in the 1960s, NSF is helping the dietary supplements industry achieve similar results. Through continuous standard development and its associated certification programs, NSF seeks to improve the quality of all types of supplements, food and water products.

Contact the Author:

Greta Houlahan can be reached at 1-800-NSF-MARK, ext. 5723 or at

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