Herbal supplements may have mystery ingredients snuck into them, and they might not even contain the herbs you’re buying them for, according to a recent investigation.
In February of 2015, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman told four major retailers—GNC, Target, Walmart, and Walgreens—to stop selling some of their store-brand herbal supplements because of their allegedly misleading labels.
Investigating the fraud
DNA barcoding technology expert James Schulte II of Clarkson University conducted tests on the store-brand products these mega-retailers sell on the shelves. The brands were GNC’s Herbal Plus, Target’s Up & Up, Walgreens’ Finest Nutrition, and Walmart’s Spring Valley.
The results indicated that 79 percent of the products tested had no DNA of the herbs listed on the label. Many of the supplements also had filler ingredients not listed on the label, including rice, beans, pine, wheat, and more. Schneiderman said these pose great health risks to those who have allergies to those ingredients and consume the products without knowing the actual contents.
Echinacea, ginseng, and St. John’s wort formulas were under fire. For example, the GNC-brand bottles of St. John’s wort, commonly used as a treatment for depression, only contained rice, garlic, and tropical houseplant, but no trace of the herb.
The worst-scoring store was Walmart; the investigation found that only four percent of their products tested had DNA from the plants on the label.
“This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: the old adage ‘buyer beware’ may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “Mislabeling, contamination, and false advertising are illegal.”
All four stores are willing to cooperate with Schneiderman. “We take this matter very seriously and will be conducting side-by-side analysis because we are 100 percent committed to providing our customers safe products,” said Carmen Bauza, vice president of Walmart Health & Wellness department.
While willing to cooperate, GNC still sticks by their products, as spokeswoman Laura Brophy said, “We stand by the quality, purity, and potency of all ingredients listed on the labels of our private-label products.”
Backlash and support
The Council for Responsible Nutrition criticized the testing procedures and said that manufacturing these supplements can remove or damage DNA, producing misleading test results. The group’s president, Steve Mister, said in a statement that the actions of the New York Attorney General’s office “smack of a self-serving publicity stunt under the guise of protecting public health.”
In contrast, some scientists support the credibility of the study. Arthur Grollman, MD, professor of experimental medicine at Johns Hopkins University, said the study was “a well-controlled, scientifically based documentation of the outrageous degree of adulteration in the herbal supplement industry.”
So what do we learn from this discovery? Do we still take our beloved herbal supplements because we like the way we feel when we’re taking them, even if it is just a placebo?
Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School said that additional tests should be conducted to make sure the findings are correct. “If I had this kind of surprising, counterintuitive results, I would do additional tests.” However, he believes there is corruption in the supplement industry and adds, “There are profound problems with the quality of supplements in the United States.”
We should proceed with more caution now, and perhaps instead of taking supplements, get the nutrients from the source. We should also consult our healthcare professionals and reassess our need for herbal supplements.
The scary thing is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have the power to regulate dietary supplements to the same rigorous standards as prescription drugs. However, the Federal Trade Commission can prosecute companies that sell products with fraudulent or unsubstantiated claims. Therefore, many supplement companies are left to do whatever they please, unless they get caught.
Dr. David Seres, director of medical nutrition in the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University Medical Center, stresses the potential dangers of dietary supplements. He also adds, “Dietary supplements are not miracle pills. Extremely few of the claims are supported by good science, even when the substance on the label is actually in the bottle (which we’ve learned we don’t know for sure), and many others have been proven ineffective.”