By Heather Mendiola
An investigation by the New York State Office of the Attorney General into herbal supplements at four different New York locations showed that five of the seven herbal supplements genetically tested contained no DNA of the herb labeled, with most of the supplements containing unrecognizable DNA or a substitute that is not on the ingredients list.
The seven herbal supplements tested were gingko biloba, St. John’s wort, ginseng, garlic, echinacea, saw palmetto and valerian root.
Supplements were purchased from GNC, Wal-Mart, Target and Walgreens Pharmacy, and all four retailers have received cease-and-desist letters demanding that they stop selling the incorrectly labeled dietary supplements.
The store brands to be wary of are GNC’s “Herbal Plus,” Target’s “Up&Up,” Walgreens’ “Finest Nutrition” and Wal-Mart’s “Spring Valley.”
The Attorney General’s Office performed DNA barcoding techniques five times for each sample from each store, which yielded 120 results.
The results showed that gingko biloba, St. John’s wort, ginseng, echinacea and valerian root were all negative, meaning there was no trace of the DNA of the plant on the label.
Most of these supplements were filled with allium, oryza, spruce and asparagacea, among other ingredients not listed on the label.
Allium is commonly known as garlic, and oryza is commonly kown as rice.
However, two supplements — garlic and saw palmetto — tested positive for their labeled herbs. Since allium is commonly known as garlic and it was found in almost all of the other supplements, including saw palmetto, it was likely this supplement would test positive.
Although the saw palmetto supplement actually contained saw palmetto, it was in less than half of the samples, and in some cases it was not even the principal ingredient — frequently, allium was the principal ingredient, with traces of other members of the primrose family, including oryza and asparagacea.
Additionally, some samples contained no plant-based DNA in the supplement at all.
What is most dangerous about this deception is that some of these supplements contain wheat — which contains gluten — and legumes, the class of plant that contains peanuts and soybeans, which can be very hazardous for people with allergies.
“If this data is accurate, then it is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry,” said Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School and expert on supplement safety Dr. Pieter Cohen.
“We’re talking about products at mainstream retailers like Wal-Mart and Walgreens that are expected to be the absolute highest quality,” he continued.
According to the report from the Attorney General’s Office, before its investigation, the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics at the University of Guelph conducted studies over a year ago and notified the supplement industry that they were not providing authentic products. This means the supplements contained substitutions, contaminations, fillers or any combination of the three.
Unfortunately, as the results have indicated, the supplement industry did not take any steps to change their supplements.
Herbal supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and, therefore, the FDA cannot do anything more than ask that the companies verify every supplement is safe and accurately labeled.
In 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services recommended that the FDA submit supplement manufacturers to the same guidelines and scrutiny that drugs must undergo in order to protect citizens from negative effects, which these tainted supplements may have.
This recommendation came after a study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that the lack of regulation can lead to “adverse events” — in the past five years supplements have been linked to kidney failure and hepatitis, among other issues.
Although only these seven supplements at these four stores have been tested, because the supplements are not FDA regulated, consumers should proceed with caution when buying herbal supplements in the near future — at least until this issue is resolved.