An investigation by the New York State attorney general’s office into organic nutritional supplements has come to a startling conclusion: most organic supplements bought at major retailers in the United States don’t contain even trace amounts of the herb listed on their labels.
The investigation, which studied the herbal supplements for sale at Walmart, Target, GNC and Walgreens, found that not only did the supplements fail to deliver on their promised ingredients, but many of them contained known allergens, making them potentially dangerous and harmful to consumers.
In the state’s investigation, 24 products claiming to contain seven types of herbal supplements (echinacea, garlic, gingko biloba, ginseng, saw palmetto, St. John’s wort and valerian root) underwent DNA testing to determine their ingredients. 19 showed DNA that was either unknown or pertaining to a plant other than what the label claimed. Perhaps even more damning, five of the supplements contained wheat and two contained beans without properly labeling them, known allergens that make the supplements potentially dangerous and harmful to their consumers.
None of the four retailers had more than one supplement test positively for listed ingredients, and none of Walmart’s six supplements contained even trace amounts of their listed herb. As a result of the investigation, New York has issued cease-and-desist orders to all four retailers telling them to immediately stop the sale of the supplements.
The supplement industry, which has often been criticized for claiming false benefits while selling what amounts to little more than snake oils, has long skated by without coming under legislative backlash due to the unique classification of the products, which don’t fall under the regulation of the FDA. As a result, the industry has been known to sell products that are of dubious merit.
In an interview with The New York Times, Harvard Medical School assistant professor Pieter Cohen, an expert on nutritional supplements, said the findings of the study were so shocking, he found himself wondering how they could possibly be correct. But despite his shock, he believes the study could ultimately hold major merit. “If this data is accurate,” Cohen told the Times, “Then it is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry.”