The headlines seemed alarming.
The editorial page of The New York Times proclaimed “Herbal Supplements without Herbs”
And the headline on ABC-TV's story read “Many Herbal Supplements aren't What the Label Says”.
What's it all about?
Herbal fraud does exist, according to Roy Upton, executive director of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia.
He says that cheap brands of herbs — especially low-cost ginkgo, saw palmetto, St. John's wort, and ginseng — are often adulterated with fillers.
But Upton stresses that reputable brands encapsulate herbs from large, credible firms, whose high-quality extracts cost three times as much or more than cheaper (often China-sourced) alternatives.
You can trust
Vital Choice supplements
Today's edition of The New York Times answers the question, “how do I know my supplements contain what they claim?”.
“... there are several steps people can take to give themselves some reassurance that at least some of the supplements they buy actually contain what they advertise on the label – and nothing else.”
“The blue and white NSF seal means that a product has been independently vetted to ensure that it is not adulterated and that it contains the ingredients listed on its label.”
We're proud to say that the purity and potency of all Vital Choice supplements is certified by NSF, as attested by the NSF seal on the bottle.
The only exceptions are products that are still undergoing NSF testing.
But, before being offered for sale, those will have already been tested by an independent lab using validated, accepted methods like those employed by NSF.
New York probe makes waves
The recent headlines concern an investigation by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
He commissioned a local lab to test 24 products for seven different herbs: echinacea, garlic, gingko biloba, ginseng, saw palmetto, St. John's wort, and valerian root.
The supplements were purchased at GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart, and included their house brands.
Schneiderman's office sent samples to a lab at Clarkson University, which reported that all but five of the 24 products contained either no herbal DNA, or just DNA from wheat and beans.
However, the method used by the Clarkson University lab is clearly unreliable … as the FDA said two years ago, and as the uniformly negative (hence improbable) test results suggest to common sense.
New investigation followed Canadian tests
Back in 2013, researchers at Canada's Guelph University analyzed 44 bottles of supplements sold by 12 companies.
The Canadians reported that many did not contain the advertised herbs, and were often diluted — or replaced entirely — by cheap fillers like soybean, wheat and rice.
Those findings indicated surprisingly widespread fraud, and apparently prompted the New York AG's probe.
But the lab at Clarkson University should have known better than to use the same, discredited, DNA method for the New York AG's probe.
New York AG's claims rest on useless test method
DNA “barcode” testing is used to test foods such as fish, to detect labeling fraud at stores and restaurants.
Following the 2013 Canadian investigation, the FDA publicly clarified that DNA testing is an unreliable way to test herbal extracts.
As the FDA pointed out, herbal extracts contain little or none of the plant's DNA, which is destroyed in the extraction process.
The FDA issued a statement when The New York Times published its 2013 story about the Canadian study, saying, “If these are extracts, there is not going to be any DNA.”
This embarrassing (for the New York AG) fact was immediately pointed out by Pieter Cohen M.D.
, a Harvard Medical School researcher who's expert at tracking down adulterated supplements.
Steve Mister, CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (the leading supplement trade association), said his organization was “stunned that the AG would use this type of testing and ignore [the fact] that [legally mandated] GMPs [good manufacturing processes] requires 100% identity testing.”
“These are very reputable brands with mainstream products and a history of passing GMP inspections,” said Mister. “They have rigorous internal and third party inspections and the FDA is routinely in these facilities.”
GNC just announced that it has provided the New York AG with its original test results and the results of retesting of the product lots cited in his letter.
As is standard practice even for smaller supplement makers and marketers, the GNC products were tested during and after production.
All were found in compliance with label claims, using validated test methods approved by the U.S. Pharmacopeia, the Association of Agricultural Chemists, the British Pharmacopeia, and the European Pharmacopeia.
It remains to be seen whether the Clarkson University lab's claim to have found traces of wheat and beans in some herb supplements will withstand scrutiny.
(Upton noted that tiny amounts of plant matter such as ground rice are commonly used as manufacturing aids.)
The New York Attorney General is standing by his charges … for the moment.
My brush with bad testing
This writer has had personal experience with bogus supplement-fraud charges.
Back in 2000, I was working for an online seller of supplements, which included its own line of herbs and nutrients.
That spring, Consumer Labs tested chondroitin and glucosamine supplements, and claimed that our chondroitin pills did not contain as much as claimed on the label.
We got the news in the form of a letter from ABC-TV's 20/20 program, which was poised to name our product in a story about the findings … with two days to go before air time.
Things looked bad, since the chief scientist for Consumer Labs was a former FDA official, supposedly experienced in testing.
However, I doubted the findings because our supplier was very reputable, and raced to do some research on the test method used by Consumer Labs.
I learned that there was no widely accepted test method for chondroitin, and that the U.S. Pharmacopeia had assembled a committee to develop valid testing standards for chondroitin.
I managed to locate a committee member at a conference in Spain, who confirmed that the test method used by Consumer Labs was not scientifically validated, and could not be relied on.
I quickly communicated my discovery to the producer of the ABC 20/20 segment, and she agreed that they could not proceed to name our supplement as falling short of label claims.
With that experience in mind – and the unlikely coincidence that four major retailers would fail to test their supplements and sell fillers as herbs – I had some doubts about the claims made by the New York AG.
As it turns out, my suspicions were probably warranted.
- AP. Supplements Industry Derides NY Attorney General's DNA Tests. February 8, 2015. Accessed at http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_HERBAL_ SUPPLEMENTS_INVESTIGATION?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT
- New Hope 360. FDA called test used by New York AG invalid a year before recall. February 6, 2015. Accessed at http://newhope360.com/news/fda-called-test-used-new-york-ag-invalid-year-recall
- NutraIngredients. NY AG takes on GNC, Walgreens, Walmart & Target on herbal supplements. February 5, 2015. Accessed at http://www.nutraingredients-usa.com/Research/NY-AG-takes-on-GNC-Walgreens-Walmart-Target-on-herbal-supplements
- The New York Times. New York Attorney General Targets Supplements at Major Retailers. Accessed at http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/03/new-york-attorney-general-targets-supplements-at-major-retailers
- The New York Times. Knowing What's in Your Supplements. February 12, 2015. Accessed at http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/12/107141/