SupplementWhen striving to live a life of optimal wellness, many people turn to herbal supplements to maintain their health. But what happens when these supplements aren’t what they’re advertised to be? Recently, research commissioned by the New York State attorney general’s office turned up some disturbing findings, leading to cease and desist letters being sent to major retailers in regards to their herbal supplements. But is this really a problem, or was the testing itself flawed? 

In early February, four major retailers were accused by the New York State attorney general’s office of selling fraudulent, and possibly even dangerous, herbal supplements. The testing performed on these supplements from GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart revealed that four out of five did not contain the herbs listed on their labels. Perhaps even more disturbing, they did contain substances that weren’t on their labels, including some that could be dangerous to those with allergies. The supplements tested were ginseng pills, Gingko biloba, St. John’s wort, and valerian root.

Of course, the ingredients in herbal supplements should be a point of caution for consumers. Because they’re not monitored with the same level of scrutiny that prescription drugs face, supplements don’t have to live up to the same kind of standards or even live up to the benefits they tout. It’s troublesome to think, however, that many of them don’t even have the herbs they’re supposed to contain. But some scientists say that it’s not as much of a concern as we might think.

The problem, according to some experts, is that the wrong testing was used. Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, asserts that the researchers should have performed additional tests, rather than simply running with their initial results. The testing used on the supplements in question was DNA barcoding, which hasn’t been proven effective in determining whether a particular botanical ingredient is present. It’s hard to find a particular fragment of DNA when the ingredients in herbal supplements are so highly processed. Damon Little, associate curator of bioinformatics at the New York Botanical Garden, supports this theory, stating that in some cases, it would be difficult to find any DNA at all in a plant extract. A study Little conducted in 2014 revealed that about 84 percent of Ginkgo biloba supplements actually did contain the herb, with only about 16 percent relying on filler ingredients. It’s probable that more testing should be done to draw a more definitive conclusion, and it’s also likely that regulation of herbal supplements should be tightened. For now, Walgreens, Target, and GNC have pulled the questionable products from their shelves, in compliance with the attorney general’s request.

At this point, the controversy over supplements is ongoing, and it should be interesting to see how it all falls out in the end. In the meantime, should you buy herbal supplements? As in any purchase, a good rule of thumb is always “let the buyer beware.” While the testing performed on those particular supplements may have been flawed, it’s still important to look with a wary eye at anything you intend to ingest, especially if you have allergies.

At our clinic, we strive to give our patients good advice regarding dietary supplementation and other topics that can help them live their best lives, in a state of health and wellness. To learn how we can help you, or for your free consultation, visit our website or call today.