Time to Throw Out Your Herbs – the New York Attorney General Says So

Ah, yes.  This is one of those headlines that rears its head every few months — another “supplement effectiveness disproved, once and for all!”  The New York attorney general recently released a report, along with cease-and-desist letters, for the herbal supplements sold by four major retailers.  The retailers were Walgreens, Wal-Mart, Target, and GNC. The issue was that DNA analysis of many of these herbal products showed none of the actual herb claimed on the label. There were plenty of dire quotes about “false advertising,” and “an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry.”

This sounds like an open and shut case, but let’s take a little but a closer look. The first problem is with the testing method. Mark Blumenthal of the American Botanical Council gave a great concise explanation about why the DNA testing that was done was inappropriate for this type of research.
The main take away points are:

  • DNA testing does not test for botanical extracts, only whole herb products
  • There was no microscopic or chemical testing (techniques much more widely used to confirm herb quality) for confirmation
  • The analysis was performed by a researcher with no background in botanical medicine
  • There was no repeat confirmation by a different lab
  • Trace contamination of other plants, or even common fillers (rice, potato, etc.) would show up on DNA analysis, since this test only shows the presence of those plants, not their quantity

Contrary to the attorney general’s statement, this test did not prove widespread fraud in the supplement industry. However, there is also the concern that these store brands are being held up as the standard for the entire supplement industry.  A professor at Harvard Medical School stated that “mainstream retailers like Wal-Mart and Walgreens…are expected to be the absolute highest quality.”

Wait, what? There are very likely our quality control issues with many supplements, especially cheap store brands. That is why I often recommend professional supplements for my patients when we want a specific therapeutic effect. Some people wonder why a bottle of supplements by Metagenics, Integrative Therapeutics, Vital Nutrients, Ortho Molecular Products, or Thorne Research costs twice as much or more than a “comparable” product at the drugstore. The answer is quality control. These professional brands spend the time and money to independently verify each batch of raw ingredients that they use, as well as the final product, to ensure quality and potency.  You wouldn’t want to buy a pharmaceutical medicine that hadn’t undergone rigorous quality control — why would you accept less from your supplements, if you are depending on them for your health?

I wouldn’t throw out my supplements just yet. Especially if you got them from a trusted source.

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