Those Herbal Supplements You're Taking Are Probably Bogus

A new investigation shows that four out of five store-brand products contained no trace of the herb labeled on the bottle.

(Photo: Lauren Wade)

Feb 3, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

What's in your herbal supplements?

Everything, apparently, except for the herbs advertised on the label. That's according to new findings by the New York State attorney general's office, which demanded that store-brand supplements be removed from the shelves at GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart.

Using a DNA bar-coding technology to genetically analyze the supplements' ingredients, investigators found that top-selling products sold as medicinal herbs—from ginseng to ginkgo biloba to St. John's wort—instead contained cheap fillers such as powdered rice, radish, wild carrots, houseplants, asparagus, and sometimes wheat, even when the product claimed to be wheat- and gluten-free. A surprising four out of five supplements at those four chains contained no trace of the herbs advertised on their packaging, according to The New York Times.

This isn't the first study to find that herbal supplements are often mislabeled or falsely advertised. In 2013, Canadian researchers also used DNA bar coding to test medicinal herbs manufactured by popular brands in Canada and the United States. They discovered that many of the supplements tested were either diluted or substituted entirely by fillers such as soybean, wheat, and rice.

That 2013 Canadian study prompted New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman to launch an investigation into supplement labeling fraud at major retailers. The cease and desist letters his office sent to the four retailers on Monday mark the first time that a law enforcement agency, rather than the Food and Drug Administration, has threatened drugstore chains with legal action for selling misleading herbal products.

Because the FDA's requirement that all companies verify the labeling of every supplement isn't technically enforced, the administration doesn't always spot fraud. Unlike prescription drugs, supplements are not required by the FDA to be reviewed for safety and effectiveness before they hit the shelves.

In response to the cease and desist letter, Walgreens said it would comply with New York state and remove the products from its shelves nationwide. A spokesperson for GNC told the Times that it would also cooperate with the attorney general, although it's not clear to what extent. Walmart said it would "take appropriate action," and Target declined the Times' request for comment.

While it appears that the big-box retailers will agree to pull their fraudulent products, that doesn't mean your local drugstore will. Because supplements are presumed to be safe until proved otherwise, it often takes a serious injury—or a suspicious state attorney general—to prompt a powerful investigation like this one.