Supplement Safety: Avoiding Fraudulent Herbs

Nationally recognized store chains, Walgreens, GNC, Walmart and Target came under fire a few weeks ago after third part testing revealed that the supplements being sold under store brand label were mislabeled, meaning they either listed ingredients that were not in the formula or contained ingredients that were not listed on the label.

This is scary!

It brings to light some underhanded actions by three very well known companies with huge customer reach. If they’re being deceptive, then who else might be deceiving us?

I can’t say I was completely surprised. Supplement safety is something I’m pretty vocal about. I’ve often coived my opinion on many over-the-counter supplements sold with little or no quality control verification. But I was shocked by the extent of the falsification.

Here are some of the discrepancies uncovered via DNA testing done at Clarkson University in Potsdam, NY by Dr. James A. Schulte II (as reported by the attorney general Eric Schneiderman’s office):

GNC:

  • Six “Herbal Plus” brand herbal supplements per store were purchased and analyzed: Gingko Biloba, St. John’s Wort, Ginseng, Garlic, Echinacea, and Saw Palmetto. Purchased from four locations with representative stores in Binghamton, Harlem, Plattsburgh & Suffolk.
  • Only one supplement consistently tested for its labeled contents: Garlic. One bottle of Saw Palmetto tested positive for containing DNA from the saw palmetto plant, while three others did not. The remaining four supplement types yielded mixed results, but none revealed DNA from the labeled herb.
  • Of 120 DNA tests run on 24 bottles of the herbal products purchased, DNA matched label identification 22% of the time.
  • Contaminants identified included asparagus, rice, primrose, alfalfa/clover, spruce, ranuncula, houseplant, allium, legume, saw palmetto, and Echinacea.

Target:

  • Six “Up & Up” brand herbal supplements per store were purchased and analyzed: Gingko Biloba, St. John’s Wort, Valerian Root, Garlic, Echinacea, and Saw Palmetto. Purchased from three locations with representative stores in Nassau County, Poughkeepsie, and Syracuse.
  • Three supplements showed nearly consistent presence of the labeled contents: Echinacea (with one sample identifying rice), Garlic, and Saw Palmetto. The remaining three supplements did not revealed DNA from the labeled herb.
  • Of 90 DNA tests run on 18 bottles of the herbal products purchased, DNA matched label identification 41% of the time.
  • Contaminants identified included allium, French bean, asparagus, pea, wild carrot and saw palmetto.

Walgreens:

  • Six “Finest Nutrition” brand herbal supplements per store were purchased and analyzed: Gingko Biloba, St. John’s Wort, Ginseng, Garlic, Echinacea, and Saw Palmetto. Purchased from three locations with representative stores in Brooklyn, Rochester and Watertown.
  • Only one supplement consistently tested for its labeled contents: Saw Palmetto. The remaining five supplements yielded mixed results, with one sample of garlic showing appropriate DNA. The other bottles yielded no DNA from the labeled herb.
  • Of the 90 DNA test run on 18 bottles of herbal products purchased, DNA matched label representation 18% of the time.
  • Contaminants identified included allium, rice, wheat, palm, daisy, and dracaena (houseplant).

Walmart:

  • Six “Spring Valley” brand herbal supplements per store were purchased and analyzed: Gingko Biloba, St. John’s Wort, Ginseng, Garlic, Echinacea, and Saw Palmetto. Purchased from three geographic locations with representative stores in Buffalo, Utica and Westchester.
  • None of the supplements tested consistently revealed DNA from the labeled herb. One bottle of garlic had a minimal showing of garlic DNA, as did one bottle of Saw Palmetto. All remaining bottles failed to produce DNA verifying the labeled herb.
  • Of the 90 DNA test run on 18 bottles of herbal products purchased, DNA matched label representation 4% of the time. Contaminants identified included allium, pine, wheat/grass, rice mustard, citrus, dracaena (houseplant), and cassava (tropical tree root).

This is a BIG deal.

You might be wondering, “How this could happen?” Who’s been watching out for the quality of herbals and our supplement safety? Well the fact is, though the FDA has very strict guidelines outlining what can or cannot be printed on a label, there’s no federal enforcing agency to make sure that those supplements are as safe or effective as the consumer maybe lead to believe.

Supplements are a $30 billion dollar a year industry. It’s no wonder that these huge retailers want to maximize on sales in this arena. However, what they did was not only misleading, it could have potentially been dangerous.

The retailers were ordered to cease and desist, and if you have any of these supplements at home you should be aware of the potential for contamination.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should stop taking your supplements, but it does mean that you should start really considering the brand and sources you choose. Though not required by the FDA, many more reputable brands have taken the extra steps to acquire third part certifications of their manufacturing practices.

Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) have been developed by the FDA and are accredited, third party institutions who are entrusted to review a manufacturer’s process, standards and efficacy to certify and allow them to carry their seal.  There are a few highly respected certifications to look out for on your supplement label. It’s important to look for independent third party certification of GMP to ensure non-bias.

Natural Product Association (NPA) 

According to the website:

NPA has always taken a leadership role in promoting quality standards and has developed proactive certification programs for that purpose. NPA was the first organization to offer a third-party GMP certification program for the manufacturing of dietary supplements and dietary ingredients.

Manufacturers looking to apply for GMP certification through NPA must comply with standards set forth: “NPA GMP Certification is awarded to companies that meet a high level of compliance to the NPA GMP Standard as verified through comprehensive third-party inspections of facilities and GMP-related documentation.”

NSF International

NSF has a 7-step review process to certify a product. According to the site, “NSF accredited third-party certification provides all stakeholders – industry, regulators, users and the general public – assurance that a certified product, material, component or service complies with the technical requirements of the referenced standard.” NSF is an international accreditation association.

Find out more information about the various agencies that accredit NSF at http://www.nsf.org/about-nsf/accreditations/.

Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) 

TGA is an Australian based agency that regulates “supply, import, export, manufacturing and advertising of therapeutic goods.” Therapeutic goods are defined as anything from medication and supplements to medical devices and even first aid supplies. They provide information and education for both consumers and healthcare professionals. They also provide a forum for consumers to report problems.

Consumer Labs (CL)

Another fantastic resource of independent testing and data is Consumer Labs. They provide reports on testing of health and nutrition products, prescriptions, sports and energy products, functional foods, food, beverages and personal care products. It’s a comprehensive and object third party that uses the FDA’s GMP quality standards as a baseline for evaluating products.

So should I keep taking my supplements?

When it comes right down to it–if you are taking any of the store brand supplements listed above, I’d recommend you discontinue using them. In fact, this might be a perfect opportunity to evaluate the products that you’re using.

  • Are your supplements certified by a third party for GMP?
  • Do they list any artificial ingredients or preservatives?
  • Is there a certification ensuring purity?
  • Are all the ingredients listed or are they hiding behind the veil of “proprietary blend”?

Better yet, review your supplements with an herbalist, nutritionist or pharmacist who’s familiar with GMP standards and product certifications.

I believe that it’s important to have alternatives to pharmaceuticals, and to hold the manufactures of these nutraceuticals to a high standard. When used properly, natural botanicals and supplements can offer a much needed and safer alternative to help people heal. However, it’s up to us as healthcare providers to help the consumer navigate the sea of products available and advocate for safer, more effective standards.

That’s why I’m here to help.

Lastly, I’d like to leave you with the following excerpt from the book 21st Century Herbal by Michael Balick:

Herbal medicine is ancient, and it gave birth to the modern sciences of botany, pharmacy, perfumery, and chemistry. Some of our most useful and beneficial medicines originate from plants, including aspirin (salicylic acid derivatives from willow bark and meadowsweet), quinine (from cinchona bark), digoxin (from foxglove), and morphine (from opium poppy). Just 100 years ago, the United States Pharmacopeia was filled with plant-based drugs, but today, few physicians are well versed in botany and few botanists deeply understand medicine.

This is unfortunate because there are times when an herbal remedy could offer a safer alternative. The flowers have been used for centuries as a gentle calm-ative for young and old alike. It is non-habit-forming and well tolerated. A study sponsored by the University of Michigan found that chamomile extract had roughly the same efficacy as many prescription sleeping medications when given to adults with insomnia. Peppermint oil has been shown to be as effective as pharmaceutical drugs for relieving irritable bowel syndrome, but without the ofttimes dangerous side effects. Clinical studies have shown that ginger relieves morning sickness, sage can relieve a sore throat, and hibiscus tea gently lowers blood pressure. I believe it’s better to use mild remedies for minor health problems and save the more potent, and risky, prescription medications for more serious conditions.

Sometimes an herb can fill a niche for which there is no pharmaceutical equivalent. Milk thistle is a classic example. Numerous scientific studies show that the extract can prevent liver damage caused by environmental toxins, alcohol, and medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol). A Columbia University study of children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) found that milk thistle could reverse the liver toxicity that resulted from chemotherapy, allowing children to receive their treatments on time. Milk thistle protects the liver without interfering with the effectiveness of medications— and nothing currently in our modern pharmacy can match it. Some herbal remedies (such as the antidepressant St. John’s wort), however, can interact with medications. So if you’re taking a prescription medication, talk to your pharmacist and/ or health-care provider before you take any herbal remedy or dietary supplement.

Consumers want to know about alternatives to conventional approaches; health-care practitioners and pharmacists should be able to answer their questions and provide appropriate guidance.

—Tieraona Low Dog, MD

Wondering what supplements are right (and safe) for you? Schedule a Supplement Overhaul and we’ll review your health profile, discuss your best options and compile a program just for you. Email me today if you have any questions! 

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