Neither Herbal Nor Supplements

Products labeled "ginseng," "echinacea," and "ginkgo biloba" often contain no trace of these substances, according to an investigation announced today.

Actual ginseng, harvested in the Appalachian region of the United States (Stephanie Frey/Shutterstock)

Many pills and capsules sold as herbal "supplements" contain little more than powdered rice and house plants, according to a report released Monday by the office of New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman. An investigation found that nearly four of five herbal supplements do not contain the ingredients listed on labels, and many supplements—tested from among leading store-brand products sold at GNC, Target, Walmart, and Walgreens—contain no plant substance of any kind at all.

Cease-and-desist letters sent to the retailers yesterday demand removal of echinacea, ginseng, St. John’s wort, garlic, saw palmetto, and ginkgo biloba  from store shelves. "Contamination, substitution, and falsely labeling herbal products constitute deceptive business practices and, more importantly, present considerable health risks," the attorney general's letters read. The brands named include Finest Nutrition, Spring Valley, Up & Up, and Herbal Plus.

The orders are based on DNA analyses of products purchased from retail shelves. At Walmart, for example, the agency found the following:

  • Ginkgo biloba:  Contained no ginkgo biloba. Did contain rice, mustard, wheat, and radish.
  • St. John's wort: Contained no St. John's wort. Did contain garlic, rice, and "a tropical root crop."
  • Ginseng: Contained no ginseng. Did contain wheat, rice, and citrus species.
  • Garlic: One of 15 tests was positive for a small amount of garlic. Most of the genetic material, though, was from rice, palm, and wheat.
  • Echinacea: Contained no echinacea, and no genetic material of any sort.
  • Saw palmetto: Contained no saw palmetto.

The findings are striking in degree, if not in nature. Past studies by the Center for Biodiversity Genomics at the University of Guelph, among others, have shown that misinformation within the supplement industry is pervasive. These products are not required to be tested for purity or effectiveness with regard to any health claims on the part of the manufacturer. The label of one of the ginseng products at Walgreens, for example, promises enhanced "physical endurance and vitality."

The Food and Drug Administration does have the power to remove these products from shelves retroactively, after ingredients are proven to be dangerous, which the agency has done in several recent cases. As Anahad O'Connor notes in The New York Times this morning, though, this is the first time that a law-enforcement agency has threatened major retail and drugstore chains with legal action for selling deliberately misleading herbal products.

The system is predicated on the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which absolves supplements from requirements that they be tested for safety or effectiveness. O'Connor recounts:

The law’s sponsor and chief architect, Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, is a steadfast supporter of supplements. He has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the industry and repeatedly intervened in Washington to quash proposed legislation that would toughen the rules.

Hatch led a successful fight against a proposed amendment in 2012 that would have required supplement makers to register their products with the FDA. and provide details about their ingredients. Speaking on the floor of the Senate at the time, Hatch said the amendment was based on “a misguided presumption that the current regulatory framework for dietary supplements is flawed.”

Senators Richard Blumenthal and Richard Durbin introduced a bill in 2013 that would require dietary supplement manufacturers to register their products with the FDA and disclose the known risks of any ingredients on their labels, but even that minimally restrictive measure remains in committee. Meanwhile, roughly 65,000 dietary supplements are currently on the market, consumed by about half of Americans.

If one wanted to engineer a lucrative sham, the model of the supplement industry is a promising one: Create a product that's outwardly countercultural, but actually undergirded by powerful interests that keep it exempt from meaningful regulation. Tell people it will make them live longer, happier lives, with less anxiety and better sex organs. Position the product as a "natural" alternative to what's being sold by pharmaceutical companies (which must undergo safety testing and demonstrate at least a modicum of effectiveness).

A Walgreens representative told me that the company will remove the products in question from shelves nationwide "as a precautionary measure." Walmart has been less definitive; its director of media relations told me by email, "Based on this notice, we are immediately reaching out to the suppliers of these products to learn more information and will take appropriate action." Target did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

GNC, though, will neither cease nor desist. Its director of client services relayed by email that the company "firmly stand[s] by the quality, purity and potency of all GNC products. We will remove the product lots named in the Attorney General’s letter from our stores in New York State if required by law."

GNC disputes the validity of the testing methods, arguing that they "have not been approved by the United States Pharmacopeia and may not be appropriate for the testing of these herbal products. GNC tests all of its products using validated and widely used testing methods, including those approved by governing bodies like the United States Pharmacopeia and the British Pharmacopeia."

The DNA bar-code testing that the agency used in today's investigation is a type of genetic fingerprinting that identifies plants by looking for short sequences unique to given organisms. Steve Mister, president of the leading trade association for the supplement industry, also criticized the choice of testing methods in a phone interview today. He argued that much of the DNA in these products is broken down during processing (heating and extraction). Had the analysis been done with methods like liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry to look for specific phytochemicals, he assured me with frenetic confidence, the results would have shown more concordance. The industry plans to refute the attorney general's findings with its own testing data.
None of this is to imply that if these products were indeed pure and unadulterated, they would be of any benefit to most people. In terms of effects on health, the evidence for taking a powdered rice supplement would likely be as compelling as any other. The one thing that nutritional supplements do offer—apart from a sense of awe at their enormous commercial success—is a placebo effect. That can be very real. Unfortunate as it will be if today's news deprives anyone of some placebo-driven sense of ginseng-induced vitality, better still to address apparent institutionalized fraud.