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Investigation Finds That Herbal Supplements Sold At Several Major Retailers Are Almost Totally Fake

The study, conducted by officials in the New York State Attorney General’s office, covered products sold at GNC, Target, Walmart, and Walgreens.

Investigation Finds That Herbal Supplements Sold At Several Major Retailers Are Almost Totally Fake
[Photo: Flickr use Erich Ferdinand]

The New York State Attorney General’s office sent cease-and-desist notices on Monday to GNC, Target, Walmart, and Walgreens, ordering them to stop selling certain herbal supplements. The state’s attorney’s office found that few, if any, of those supplements contained their advertised herbs–and some even had potential allergens not listed among their ingredients.

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The study conducted by the state’s attorney’s office found that, on average, four out of five supplements sold at the above retailers didn’t contain the herbs on their labels. Instead, the New York Times reports, the pills often contained little more than cheap fillers like powdered rice, asparagus, and houseplants.

The Washington Post reports that the attorney general’s investigators tested 24 products claiming to be seven different types of herb—echinacea, garlic, gingko biloba, ginseng, saw palmetto, St. John’s wort, and valerian root—using a process called DNA barcoding, the same process that FDA investigators used to expose labeling fraud in the seafood industry. Only five of the products turned out to be made of what they said they were made of.

Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and “supplement safety” expert quoted by the Times, found the results of the state attorney general’s tests too extreme to be believed, and speculated that the process of manufacturing the supplements may have tampered with the herb DNA, making them unrecognizable to the DNA barcoding. If he were to assume that the results were true, however, he conceded that it would be a colossal blow to the supplement industry.

Under current law, supplements are presumed safe until proven otherwise. A 1994 law exempts supplements from the rigorous approval process needed to green-light prescription drugs for public consumption, according to the Times. Naturally, the architect of the law, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT), has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the supplement industry and quashed any further attempts to regulate supplements since.

Walgreens committed to removing the noted supplements from its stores nationwide, though the ban only applies to New York State. Walmart is “looking into it” on the supplement production side, while GNC is cooperating with authorities but stands behind its products.

[via The Washington Post ]

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