Herbal Supplements — Do You Know What’s REALLY In Them?

In early February, four major retailers in the state of New York were barred from selling their store-brand supplements: GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart. The supplements had been tested by The New York State attorney general’s office as part of an ongoing investigation. Using DNA barcoding, it was determined that four out of five bottles either had no evidence of the plant DNA listed on the bottles, or they were contaminated with unlisted ingredients like tree nuts, soy, and wheat that could be harmful to allergy-prone consumers.

DNA barcoding is a process that specifically defines plant species. The process is being questioned though, as some scientists argue that processing used in making the supplements could be responsible for destroying or altering the plant DNA, thereby making the plants undetectable. So all four retailers have been called to do tests of their own, and explain their methods of quality control.

GNC has now promised to strengthen its system of quality control, in an agreement with the attourney general. In the next 18 months, it will use advanced DNA testing to ensure the authenticity of its products. It will also test products for common allergens. Their progress will be monitored by semiannial reports.

“When consumers take an herbal supplement, they should be able to do so with full knowledge of what is in that product and confidence that every precaution was taken to ensure its authenticity and purity.”

-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Target, Walgreens, and Walmart still haven’t made any major moves, though both Walgreens and Walmart have issued statements acknowledging the issue and their willingness to work with the attorney general’s office.

In 1994, a new federal law mandated that a supplement bottle must have every ingredient listed on its label. However, the Food and Drug Administration has little power over the manufacturers, as strict guidelines prevent them from subjecting supplements to the same scrutiny as prescription drugs. In essence, supplement manufacturers operate on the honor code.  The FDA estimates that 70 percent of supplement manufacturers don’t adhere to the guidelines. (The law was penned by senators with strong ties to the industry, and has consumers crying foul.)

Schneider and the attorney generals of 13 other states are calling on congress to make a “comprehensive inquiry” into the industry.

Make sure to do your own research when it comes to herbal supplements, and ask your doctor for recommendations for reputable brands.

What supplements do you use? Share with us in the comments!

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