Does Your Vitamin or Herbal Supplement Contain What It Claims?

By Lori Newman, Special to Lifescript
Published February 12, 2015
Nutritional supplement users were shocked by a recent report saying that some herbal products may not contain the active ingredients. Here’s how to tell if a supplement is safe and effective…

Do you take ginkgo biloba to improve your memory? Echinacea to boost your immune system? St. John’s wort for a better mood?

You may not be getting what you pay for, according to New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.

On Feb. 3, his office accused four major retailers – Walmart, Walgreens, Target and GNC – of selling fraudulent store-brand supplements. DNA testing found that nearly 4 out of 5 bottles contained little or none of the plants listed on the label, it claimed.
Schneiderman said he sent letters to these retailers warning them to stop selling the products. He also asked for detailed information about how the supplement capsules were produced, processed and tested, and to explain what quality control measures were in place during their manufacture.

Walmart’s Spring Valley brand fared the worst during testing: just 4% of the bottles tested contained any DNA from the advertised plant, according to the release.

The 6 products tested from each retailer were ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort, ginseng, garlic, echinacea and saw palmetto.

What did the tests reveal?
Only 21% of the products tested actually contained any DNA from the plant species advertised on the label, Schneiderman reported. And 35% of the products contained DNA from plant species not listed on the labels – which Schneiderman called “fillers and contaminants.”

“A large number of the tests did not reveal any DNA from a botanical substance of any kind,” Schneiderman stated.

In the four store brands analyzed, unlisted ingredients found in various capsules included carrots, wheat, rice, allium (onions or garlic), beans, asparagus and leaves from house plants.

“This study undertaken by Attorney General Schneiderman’s office is a well-controlled, scientifically based documentation of the outrageous degree of adulteration in the herbal supplement industry,” says Arthur Grollman, M.D., professor of pharmacological sciences at Stony Brook University, in the press release.

A Consumer Controversy
Representatives of the supplement industry and some consumer groups disagreed with the report’s findings, saying that the kind of testing done on the products was an ineffective way of analyzing processed herbs. The tests, conducted by an expert from Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., used “DNA barcoding” techniques, in which genetic markers are examined to identify plant species.

“DNA testing seldom is able to properly identify chemically complex herbal extracts, because often DNA doesn’t get through the extraction process,” Mark Blumenthal, director of the American Botanical Council in Austin, Tex., told the Associated Press.

“All GNC products are submitted to rigorous and generally accepted testing before they reach our customers,” said that company’s CEO, Michael Archbold, in a statement.

“When industry-wide standards are used to authenticate the ingredients in our products, the results demonstrate they are pure, safe and fully compliant,” Archbold said.

Controversies over supplement quality are magnified by the fact that they aren’t regulated like products labeled as drugs. Manufacturers are “prohibited from marketing products that are adulterated or misbranded,” but aren’t required to get Food and Drug Administration approval before producing or selling them, the FDA says.

“Supplements do not undergo the [FDA’s] rigorous evaluation process which scrutinizes everything about the drug — from the design of clinical trials to the severity of side effects to the conditions under which the drug is manufactured,” Schneiderman said in his Feb. 2 press release.

They do, however, have to “make sure that all claims and information on the product label and in other labeling are truthful and not misleading,” the FDA states.

The federal agency also requires that all ingredients not listed on a product’s “Supplement Facts” panel must be listed in “other ingredients” beneath that panel.

Herbal products not listing every ingredient on their labels “can cause serious harm to consumers unaware of the actual ingredients in the pills and capsules they ingest,” because they could cause allergic reactions or interact poorly with medications, Dr. Grollman says.

Be Smart About Supplements U.S. consumers spend nearly $20 billion per year on dietary supplements, according to the Natural Products Foundation. But with so many different brands on the market, it can be difficult to know which ones to buy.

What should you do? First, check with your doctor before taking any supplement, notes nutrition expert Robert Wildman, Ph.D. Some may not be recommended for certain health conditions or can interact poorly with medications.

Then, purchase brands you trust. If you aren’t sure, there are organizations that can help.

    • ConsumerLab.com tests vitamins, minerals, herbs and other products for active ingredients and potentially harmful contaminants. Results are made available to paid subscribers for $3 per month.
    • U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) is a nonprofit organization that tests some supplements; those that meet its standards can display the USP seal of approval on their labels.
    • Other seals of approval include the Natural Products Association’s GMP certification, which means the manufacturer has met standards of good manufacturing practices. NSF certificationensures that products don’t contain unacceptable levels of contaminants.
  • The FDA’s website provides an in-depth Q&A section about dietary supplements. Topics include how they’re regulated, what kinds of claims manufacturers can make about a product, and how consumers can inform themselves about supplements’ safety.
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