Herbal Supplements Flunk the Test; Don't Contain Herbs

Probe Finds Popular Supplements Contain Rice, Houseplants

Testing of herbal supplements sold by major retailers including Target and Walmart revealed that 79 percent have no trace of the herbs on the products' labels, according to an investigation by the New York State Attorney General.

The testing led Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman to send letters to GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreens to halt the sale of their store brand herbal supplements including Echinacea, Ginseng, and St. John's Wort. Walmart's products fared worst in the testing, the attorney general said, with only 4 percent containing DNA of the herbs on the product labels.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: the old adage 'buyer beware' may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements.%"This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: the old adage 'buyer beware' may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements," Schneiderman said. "The DNA test results seem to confirm long-standing questions about the herbal supplement industry. Mislabeling, contamination, and false advertising are illegal."

Not only are consumers being duped, he said, but it is also dangerous to use supplements when they contain ingredients that aren't on the label.

Unlike drugs, which are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and subject to testing and clinical trials, herbal supplements are largely unregulated. Even still, many supplements have been recalled by the FDA when they've been found to be dangerous.

The industry has also found itself taken to task by the Federal Trade Commission over the years, typically over claims the supplements could achieve certain results -- like weight loss -- when there was no supporting evidence.

"Consumers already had ample reason to doubt most of the claims made by herbal supplement manufacturers, who have precious little scientific evidence indicating these herbs' effectiveness in the first place," said David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "But when the advertised herbs aren't even in many of the pills, it's a sign that this poorly regulated industry is in desperate need of reform. Until then, and perhaps even after then, consumers should stop wasting their money in the herbal supplements aisle."

Here are some of the findings of the the Attorney General's testing by retailer:

GNC (GNC):
  • Six "Herbal Plus" brand herbal supplements per store were purchased and analyzed: gingko biloba, St. John's wort, ginseng, garlic, echinacea and saw palmetto.
  • Only one supplement consistently tested for its labeled contents: garlic. One bottle of Saw Palmetto tested positive for containing DNA from the saw palmetto plant, while three others didn't. The remaining four supplement types yielded mixed results, but none revealed DNA from the labeled herb.
  • Of 120 DNA tests run on 24 bottles of the herbal products purchased, DNA matched label identification 22 percent of the time.
  • Contaminants identified included asparagus, rice, primrose, alfalfa/clover, spruce, ranuncula, houseplant, allium, legume, saw palmetto and echinacea.
Target (TGT):
  • Six "Up & Up" brand herbal supplements per store were purchased and analyzed: gingko biloba, St. John's wort, valerian root, garlic, echinacea and saw palmetto.
  • Three supplements showed nearly consistent presence of the labeled contents: echinacea (with one sample identifying rice), garlic and saw palmetto. The remaining three supplements showed no DNA from the labeled herb.
  • Of 90 DNA tests run on 18 bottles of the herbal products purchased, DNA matched label identification 41 percent of the time.
  • Contaminants identified included allium, French bean, asparagus, pea, wild carrot and saw palmetto.
Walgreens (WBA):
  • Six "Finest Nutrition" brand herbal supplements per store were purchased and analyzed: gingko biloba, St. John's wort, ginseng, garlic, echinacea and saw palmetto.
  • Only one supplement consistently tested for its labeled contents: saw palmetto. The remaining five supplements yielded mixed results, with one sample of garlic showing appropriate DNA. The other bottles yielded no DNA from the labeled herb.
  • Of the 90 DNA test run on 18 bottles of herbal products purchased, DNA matched label representation 18 percent of the time.
  • Contaminants identified included allium, rice, wheat, palm, daisy and dracaena (houseplant).
Walmart (WMT):
  • Six "Spring Valley" brand herbal supplements per store were purchased and analyzed: gingko biloba, St. John's wort, ginseng, garlic, echinacea and saw palmetto.
  • None of the supplements tested consistently revealed DNA from the labeled herb. One bottle of garlic had a minimal showing of garlic DNA, as did one bottle of saw palmetto. All remaining bottles failed to produce DNA verifying the labeled herb.
  • Of the 90 DNA test run on 18 bottles of herbal products purchased, DNA matched label representation 4 percent of the time.
  • Contaminants identified included allium, pine, wheat/grass, rice mustard, citrus, dracaena (houseplant) and cassava (tropical tree root).
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