What is NSF certification and when is it necessary?

From the desk of
Robb Wolf
ScienceWhat is NSF certification and when is it necessary?

Most of us have seen the mark of NSF emblazoned on supplements, water bottles, and consumer wares. Those white letters in a blue circle signal that a product is NSF certified—but what does that actually mean?

NSF certifications are distributed by NSF International, a third-party organization that independently tests a wide range of products to uphold quality and safety standards. They audit ingredients, manufacturing processes, label claims, and more.

Their business is to test the products and services of other businesses, as well as set standards for safety and quality. That’s how NSF International makes money.

What does NSF certification entail? What products does NSF certify? And is the certification worth it? That’s what we’ll cover in today’s blog.

What Is NSF Certification?

NSF certification is a third-party seal of approval administered by NSF International. The certification indicates that a product or service complies with predetermined standards of quality, safety, and sanitation.

NSF, by the way, stands for “National Sanitation Foundation”. It was founded in 1944 at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health with the initial purpose of standardizing food safety requirements.

NSF has since expanded beyond the United States, officially rebranding itself as NSF International in 1990. Today, NSF International leaves a sasquatch-sized footprint, operating in 165,000 square feet of laboratory space, stretching its reach across more than 150 countries around the world.

NSF Standard Setting

Standard setting is an important part of the NSF’s business. To set a new standard (for say, water quality), the NSF assembles a group of industry leaders, public health officials, and user representatives. After reviewing all the relevant details—including NSF laboratory data—the committee then casts ballots. Eventually, a new standard is born.

The first NSF standards governed soda fountain and kitchen equipment sanitation. Since then, the NSF has created over 80 American National Standards in safety and health. (In the US, standard setting runs through the American National Standards Institute, another third party organization).

Once a standard is passed, companies who wish to remain NSF-certified must comply with that standard. And it’s not an honor system—the NSF sends employees to check-in on an annual basis, at the least.

What Does The Certification Process Involve?

NSF International certifies a variety of products and services. These will be detailed in the next section, but, generally speaking, the certification process includes:

  • A comprehensive review of the formula, materials, and ingredients used in the products.
  • Laboratory testing of product materials to ensure safety, sanitation, and quality in line with regulatory standards.
  • A rigorous facilities audit for design, construction, and material safety.
  • A fee of $1,500 or more (depending on the specific certifications and number of products).

Once a product is NSF-certified, the verification process is repeated annually to ensure that nobody is incompliant.

What Products Does NSF Certify?

The NSF started out by certifying commercial food equipment. Today, they do much more. Here are the main areas certified by NSF International:

#1: Commercial Foodservice Products

NSF’s first project? To develop sanitation standards for soda fountains and luncheon equipment. This purview has expanded to refrigerators, pots, pans, and most other equipment you’d find in a kitchen.

Being NSF-certified in this space is primarily a mark of sanitation. It’s an assurance that:

  • The product is disinfected of food borne pathogens.
  • Harmful chemicals like lead or arsenic won’t be found in your food or drink.
  • The manufacturer only uses FDA approved materials.
  • The product is dishwasher safe.

Some states, like Nevada, require that all commercial kitchens use NSF-certified products. Other cities and municipalities have similar requirements.

#2: Water

Safe drinking water is a basic human need. Safe bathing water doesn’t hurt, either. NSF International certifies both.

NSF Water Expertise

  • Bottled water
  • Municipal water systems
  • Pools and spas
  • Plumbing products
  • Water treatment systems
  • And much more

The NSF’s bottled water certification, for instance, involves microbiological, chemical, and radiological analysis to ensure the water is up to snuff. All that laboratory space isn’t just for show!

#3: Supplements

The supplement industry is largely unregulated. Because of this, it’s hard to know what’s actually inside a given product. Is the label telling the truth?

That’s why NSF created the NSF/ANSI 173 certification. This certification verifies the composition of supplements for vitamins, minerals, herbs, botanicals, amino acids, sports supplements, concentrates, metabolites, constituents and extracts. Basically, whatever’s on the label is tested for.

What about banned substances in pro sports? (Major League Baseball, anyone?) That’s where the NSF’s sports certification comes in.

The Certified for Sport badge helps athletes and coaches select products that don’t contain banned substances, contaminants, or masking agents. It also ensures that what’s on the label is in the product. Finally, this certification is the only third-party certification program acknowledged by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the MLB, and the NHL, among others.

#4: Foods and Beverages

Foods and beverages aren’t NSF-certified, per se, but you’re probably familiar with certifications like organic and non-GMO. Well, the NSF has certs for those, too. They provide independent verification services for label claims including:

  • Non-GMO. Have you seen the Non-GMO Project Verified butterfly seal? Over 60,000 products bear this mark that indicates a manufacturer has shirked genetically modified organisms. For their part, NSF guides companies through the complex process of becoming non-GMO verified.
  • Organic. The US organic market (food and non food) surpassed $55 billion in 2019. NSF verifies products to the USDA’s National Organic Program (the recognizable green and white organic label), along with organic standards in Europe, Mexico, and Canada.
  • Gluten-free. For many people, avoiding gluten isn’t just a preference. NSF offers a specific gluten-free certification in compliance with the FDA’s gluten-free labeling rule.
  • Kosher, plant-based, and raised without antibiotics. All of these labels are mediated by NSF experts.

LMNT and NSF Certification

LMNT is not NSF-certified. Why not? Because our tasty electrolyte drink mix is considered a beverage, not a supplement. That’s why LMNT has a nutrition facts panel rather than a supplement panel. It’s not eligible for the official blue circle.

However, LMNT’s manufacturing facility is NSF certified. It’s actually a multi-certified manufacturer operating as a cGMP facility to produce the highest quality products.

This means that it meets GMP (good manufacturing practice) standards, and is regularly audited for safety, materials, and sanitation.

In other words, no harmful ingredients are sneaking into LMNT. What you see on the label is what you get.

Why Companies Seek NSF Certification

NSF certification is like having an impressive bullet point on your resume. It looks good to others. And others, in this case, are people who are considering purchasing your product.

This is likely the main reason why companies seek the NSF badge. Even if a company has proper safety standards and good manufacturing practices to begin with, they may want the added credibility and visibility of the blue and white circle.

The NSF certification ordeal also helps companies stay compliant with national and international standards. If a company is found to be in violation of these standards, that could end badly for both the business and its end users.

Simply put, the NSF provides an independent auditing service. They make sure everything looks good before the real inspectors come in.

Plus, NSF testers may catch a safety or sanitation concern that would otherwise go unnoticed, even by government regulators. Catching this early may well be worth the fee and hassle.

When is NSF Certification Necessary?

Should your business pursue NSF certification? That depends on your product and situation. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Credibility. NSF certification adds credibility in the eye of the consumer. This has value.
  • Cost. Can you afford the fee? If you’re just getting started, it might be steep.
  • Compliance. Are your facilities and ingredients in compliance with government regulations? NSF will make sure they are. One less thing to worry about.
  • Product type. Is your product even eligible? NSF doesn’t certify foods and beverages like it does supplements.

If you’re still unsure if getting NSF-certified makes sense for your business, check out their website at NSF.org to see where your product or service fits in. Think on it for a bit—then make an informed choice.

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