Watch Out for These Poor-Quality, Fraudulent Herbal Dietary Supplements

*Update, 2/5/15: Industry spokespeople have raised questions about the applicability of DNA barcoding on herbal supplements. The New York Attorney General maintains that the use of DNA barcoding is supported by more than 70 scientific papers.

Four major national retailers were told this week by the New York State Attorney General to stop selling their store brands of certain herbal supplements because many of them do not contain what they’re supposed to. The stores are Walmart, Target, Walgreens, and GNC, and the supplements are Echinacea, Ginkgo, Ginseng, St. John’s Wort, Garlic, and Saw Palmetto. The Attorney General also said that many of these products contain plant materials not listed on the labels.

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Using a new technology called DNA barcoding that can accurately identify a plant from tiny snippets of DNA, the Attorney General’s office reported that it found that only 21 percent of the herbal supplements purchased from these four chains throughout New York State appeared to contain the herbs listed on the labels. About a third of them contained unlisted plant material not listed on the labels, such as rice, beans, asparagus, and wheat. Many others didn’t contain any identifiable DNA from plants.

Here are the products that flunked and were ordered off store shelves:

Store store brand herbal supplement
GNC Herbal Plus echinacea
GNC Herbal Plus ginkgo biloba
GNC Herbal Plus ginseng
GNC Herbal Plus St. John’s wort
GNC Herbal Plus saw palmetto
Target Up & Up ginkgo biloba
Target Up & Up St. John’s wort
Target Up & Up valerian root
Walgreens Finest Nutrition echinacea
Walgreens Finest Nutrition garlic
Walgreens Finest Nutrition ginkgo biloba
Walgreens Finest Nutrition ginseng
Walgreens Finest Nutrition St. John’s wort
Walmart Spring Valley echinacea
Walmart Spring Valley garlic
Walmart Spring Valley ginkgo biloba
Walmart Spring Valley ginseng
Walmart Spring Valley St. John’s wort
Walmart Spring Valley saw palmetto

Here are the products that passed:

Store store brand herbal supplement
GNC Herbal Plus garlic
Target Up & Up echinacea
Target Up & Up garlic
Target Up & Up saw palmetto
Walgreens Finest Nutrition saw palmetto

Here’s a link to the New York State Attorney General’s “cease and desist” letters to the four companies.

This isn’t the first time that DNA barcoding has detected problems with herbal supplements.

In 2012, researchers at Stony Brook University Medical Center in New York used it to test commercial black cohosh products and found that just 75 percent of them contained black cohosh. Only about half of 44 herbal products from 12 companies passed DNA barcoding tests at Canada’s University of Guelph in 2013. Two of 34 samples of saw palmetto analyzed by scientists at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx in 2013 contained, instead of saw palmetto, plants that cannot be legally sold as dietary supplements, and 6 of 37 samples of ginkgo biloba they tested in 2014 did not contain any ginkgo.

The Food and Drug Administration is also using this new technology to look for fish fraud, in which cheaper species of fish are sold to unsuspecting consumers as more expensive kinds.

What should you know if you’re interested in trying herbal supplements? First, bear in mind that most of them have not shown clear benefits in well-designed studies conducted in the United States, even when the products tested were verified to be of high-quality. Supplement manufacturers are not required to have convincing evidence before they make most claims about the health benefits of their products.

Second, this new study confirms what industry insiders already know, that there are many inferior herbal supplements on the market. Plant materials may be harvested all over the world and pass through many hands before they reach supplement manufacturers. Along the way, there can be opportunities for substituting lookalike cheaper plants, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Manufacturers of store brands may be particularly vulnerable to this adulteration because they compete on price and need to keep costs down, including the cost of testing what they’re selling.

If you’re interested in purchasing herbs for your health, follow the advice of a health professional you trust. Look for quality seals on the product labels from organizations such as USP or NSF. Or subscribe to ConsumerLab.com, an independent company which has been analyzing the quality of dietary supplements since 1999 and makes its results available to subscribers at consumerlab.com.

Sources: J AOAC Int. 2012 Jul-Aug;95(4):1023-34; BMC Med. 2013 Oct 11;11:222; Sci Rep. 2013 Dec 17;3:3518; Genome. 2014 Dec 11:1-4

Other relevant links:

• We downgraded our rating of Ginkgo biloba from safe to avoid. See: Urgent Consumer Alert on Ginkgo biloba Supplements and Drinks

• Are herbal supplement labels lying? See: Name that Herb

• Should you be taking a multivitamin? See: Dietary Supplements: Are Multivitamins Useless?

5 Replies to “Watch Out for These Poor-Quality, Fraudulent Herbal Dietary Supplements”

  1. Interesting that Consumerlab.com shows Walmart Spring Valley Ginseng as having the correct ingredient levels for echinacea. They state that a consistent method to measure is not possible due to the many different varieties. They just determine contaminant levels. I have used Consumerlab.com to vette any products I am considering trying and found Walmart Spring valley to typically score high in value and low in cost. I am speaking of vitamin and amino acid supplements primarily not herbal compounds.

  2. Oops just saw my post error. Correct sentence. “They state that a consistent method to measure Ginseng is not possible due to the many different varieties”

  3. consumer labs charges for their reports($18 or a single report; $50 o yearly). As a subscriber to Nutrition action, I expect YOU to subscribe and tell the rest of us ” what the bad ones are” such as you have done here, but unfortunately for a limited # of items . Why not the whole spectrum. WHat are you waiting for?

    1. From Nutrition Action Healthletter: Sorry, that would be stealing. Consumerlab.com charges for its information in order to pay for the expensive lab testing it does. Without subscription fees, Consumerlab.com would go out of business and there would be no one left systematically analyzing the quality of dietary supplements. We wouldn’t want that.

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