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Many Generic Herbal Supplements Not Herbal At All

March 18, 2015

Health experts have long criticized store-brand herbal supplements. And finally they have been vindicated. The Attorney General’s office recently oversaw testing on products from nationwide chains like Walmart, Walgreens, Target, and GNC, finding that only a very small minority contained any of the ingredients listed on their labels. The office also sent messages to these four retailers, each of which opens with, “This letter constitutes a demand to cease and desist engaging in the sale of adulterated and/or mislabeled herbal or dietary supplements.”

The Attorney General’s office bought seventy-eight supplements in all and had many samples tested–gingko biloba, St. John’s wort, ginseng, garlic, Echinacea, and saw palmetto.

Of these four chains, Walmart fared worst. Its gingko biloba, St. John’s wort, and Echinacea contained no gingko biloba, nor St. John’s wort, nor Echinacea. Walmart’s garlic supplement was nearly all rice and wheat, and its saw palmetto was mostly rice.

Testing turned up very similar results in herbal products from the other three companies as well: Walgreens’ only positive testing was for saw palmetto (with each of the other five supplements coming back negative); Target’s garlic tested positive, while its Echinacea and saw palmetto were “qualified positive” (they tested below the amounts they claimed to contain); out of six samples, only GNC’s garlic tested positive.

As an article on the New York Times’ blog Well points out, this is not only disingenuous and illegal–due to laws against false advertising–it also places individuals with allergies to any of these unmarked ingredients at serious risk. The author notes, “The FDA requires that companies verify that every supplement they manufacture is safe and accurately labeled.” As we have maintained on this blog for years, however, “the system essentially operates on the honor code.”

Part of the problem is political. The 1994 law that mandates testing for pharmaceuticals (but not for supplements) was sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, who has “accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the industry and repeatedly intervened in Washington to quash proposed legislation that would toughen the rules.” He also argued in 2012–when other lawmakers wanted to change existing standards–that his opponents were proceeding from a “misguided presumption that the current regulatory framework for dietary supplements is flawed.”

As the editor-in-chief of Nutrition Business Journal wrote last month, “The honor system isn’t working. The best way forward for the nutritional supplements industry will be to accept at least a bit more oversight.” He proceeded to explain that “even if” “only a minority of players” is taking advantage of lax laws, those companies are nonetheless “destroying public trust.”

Another story on the Times’ Well blog explains that consumers should, rather than looking for brand names, look for labels from any of several nonpartisan nonprofit organizations whose job it is to monitor such supplements. For example, look for a “USP Verified” seal, or an “NSF Certified” label. The author also encourages consumers to check up on products on consumerlab.com, which “frequently tests products and maintains an archive of reports.”

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