Some supplements contained fillers like powdered rice, asparagus, and houseplants. (Photo: Getty Images)
The supplement industry has come under fire recently over concerns regarding regulations and effectiveness of the. And now, new findings by the New York State attorney general’s office may add fuel to the fire.
Earlier this week, four major retailers — Target, Walmart, Walgreens, and GNC — were accused of selling herbal supplements that lacked ingredients claimed on the label. Some even contained additional, potentially harmful ingredients.
The attorney general’s team tested 24 products in total. Roughly four out of five supplements tested did not contain the medicinal herbs they were supposed to, and were instead rife with “cheap fillers like powdered rice, asparagus and houseplants, and in some cases substances that could be dangerous to those with allergies,” according to a New York Times report.
This prompted four cease-and-desist letters from the attorney general’s office to the retail chains for explanation on how these potentially hazardous supplements could have been sold in the stores. “Mislabeling, contamination and false advertising are illegal,” says Eric T. Schneiderman, the state attorney general, according to The Times. “They also pose unacceptable risks to New York families — especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients.”
Among the problem supplements was a ginseng pill from Walgreens marketed for increased endurance and vitality — but contained little more than garlic and rice powder. Another was a ginkgo biloba supplement from Walmart that was mainly a mix of powdered radish, houseplants, and wheat — and its label said it was wheat- and gluten-free.
Walgreens is pulling the problematic supplements from shelves. Walmart plans to reach out to suppliers and take necessary action to ensure the safety of its customers. GNC says the company is willing to cooperate following this investigation, but stood behind its own supplements and testing system. Target so far has not issued a comment.
The attorney general’s office conducted its test by purchasing 78 bottles of the four retailers’ top brands from a dozen Walmart, Target, GNC, and Walgreens stores in the state. Then, they used a type of “DNA barcoding” that analyzes short sequences of DNA within organisms (like herbs and plants) contained within a substance.
Health care experts have warned about the potential dangers of the unregulated supplement industry for some time, including in a 2012 review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Certain ingredients, like high amounts of caffeine, pose risks for certain consumers.
Since supplements are not currently subjected to the FDA’s testing standards, some experts say it’s impossible to tell how safe they really are. In 2013, for instance, nearly 100 hepatitis cases were linked with a contaminated supplement.
Dr. Pieter Cohen, a supplement-safety expert and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, told The Times this news may be a major setback for supplements. “If this data is accurate, then it is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry,” he says. “We’re talking about products at mainstream retailers like Walmart and Walgreens that are expected to be the absolute highest quality.”
Admittedly, though, Cohen says these results are a bit eyebrow-raising, since so many of the supplements were shown not to contain any of the labeled plant DNA. He hypothesizes that manufacturing wiped away some of the DNA coding, so the herbal and plant ingredients were present — they just weren’t detectable. However, this would not seem to explain the contaminants in the pills.
Ashley Harris, RD, a dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says you should always talk to a health care professional before taking a supplement. Even if it appears effective for treating or curbing a certain condition, that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone — or healthy.
"There is always potential for dangerous interactions with current medications, supplements, or health conditions,” she tells Yahoo Health. “So supplement use needs to be reevaluated with any change in your medication regimen or health status, and several supplements may need to be discontinued prior to surgeries."
In addition, if you choose to take a supplement, find the safest brands you can. “Because there is limited regulation with supplements on the market, it is important to do your research,” Harris says. “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.”
The attorney general’s investigation was spurred by a 2013 Times story about potential supplement fraud. See below for the complete list of supplements the New York attorney general asked retailers take off shelves.
- “Herbal Plus” Gingko Biloba
- “Herbal Plus” St. John’s Wort
- “Herbal Plus” Ginseng
- “Herbal Plus” Garlic
- “Herbal Plus” Echninacea
- “Herbal Plus” Saw Palmetto
- "Up & Up" Gingko Biloba
- "Up & Up" St. John’s Wort
- "Up & Up" Garlic
- "Up & Up" Echinacea
- "Up & Up" Saw Palmetto
- "Up & Up" Valerian Root
- “Finest Nutrition” Ginko Biloba
- “Finest Nutrition” St. John’s Wort
- “Finest Nutrition” Ginsberg
- “Finest Nutrition” Garlic
- “Finest Nutrition” Echinacea
- “Finest Nutrition” Saw Palmetto
- “Spring Valley” Gingko Biloba
- “Spring Valley” St. John’s Wort
- “Spring Valley” Ginseng
- “Spring Valley” Garlic
- “Spring Valley” Echinacea
- “Spring Valley” Saw Palmetto
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