GNC is taking an important first step in making sure our supplements do what they say they do. (Photo: Getty Images)
Earlier this year, the New York State attorney general’s office accused GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreens of selling fraudulent herbal supplements, devoid of the ingredients touted on the label and containing potentially harmful contaminants. Now, at least one of the retailers is responding by tightening up their quality control.
Today, GNC will announce that it will be implementing major new testing procedures to make sure its supplements far exceed the standards currently set by the federal government.
“This should be a standard across the entire industry,” Dr. Pieter Cohen, a professor who studies supplements at Harvard Medical School, tells the New York Times. “Today we finally have one first step taken by one retailer, and only after the very aggressive intervention by the New York attorney general’s office.”
After the allegations of fraud, GNC stood behind the testing of its supplements. However, the retailer has vowed to test the products even more rigorously with additional quality-control measurements to be implemented in the next 18 months
As part of an agreement with the attorney general, GNC is planning to lead the way in setting new standards for a $33 billion-a-year industry that’s regulation is notably lax. The chain will use advanced DNA testing to authenticate all plants in its GNC-labeled supplements, as well as closely vet the products for allergens like soy, wheat and nuts.
GNC will also post signage in its 6,500 stores and on its website detailing how the supplements are produced, and submit frequent reports to prove its compliance with the attorney general’s orders.
New York attorney general Eric T. Schneiderman hasn’t yet confirmed or denied whether he was working on similar plans with Walmart, Target and Walgreens, but hoped all supplements retailers and manufacturers would “join GNC in working with my office to increase transparency and safeguard the wellness of their customers,” according to the NYT report.
Schneiderman also critiqued the current federal standards for supplements. “When consumers take an herbal supplement, they should be able to do so with full knowledge of what is in that product and confidence that every precaution was taken to ensure its authenticity and purity,” he said.
Most don’t realize exactly how supplements are screened, and tend to think testing guidelines are close to that of pharmaceutical drugs. “They’re regulated more like foods,” Eliseo Guallar, MD, DrPH, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Yahoo Health last year. “They don’t have as tough a standard, and some of the claims reflect that.”
For instance, a ginseng supplement, purportedly aimed at vitality and endurance, was found to contain little more than garlic and rice powder in the attorney general’s investigation.
Supplements are required to state the name and amount of each and every ingredient they contain — but this practice is more of an “honor code,”and not always abided by.
Although GNC’s agreement fulfills the demands originally laid out by the New York State attorney general’s office, the company still stands by the quality of its supplements and its testing procedures.
According to David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the best-case scenario is for the government to step in for nationwide changes. “What consumers desperately need is congressional action that would allow the Food and Drug Administration to promptly oust from the marketplace products that are dishonestly marketed or potentially dangerous,” he told the Times.
So, while things are a little better for the supplement industry today than yesterday, there’s still a long way to go — and a lot of disagreement over the best course of action.
In the meantime, if you choose to buy supplements, Ashley Harris, RD, a dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says to talk to your doc and take precaution first.
“Because there is limited regulation with supplements on the market, it is important to do your research,” Harris told Yahoo Health earlier this year. “There are several third-party agencies who evaluate the purity and potency of supplements that you can use to guide you. Look for the USP or NSF International stamp of approval, or you can check out Consumer Lab.”