(Source: Daily Mail)
DNA testing revealed that the supplements contained no trace of the plants they claimed to include

When you extract biochemicals from plants of interest you typically get desirable compounds (e.g. certain alkaloids and other active compounds).  But unless you're packing some serious pharmaceutical grade purity, chances are you'll also extract bits of DNA.  The good news is that those snippets of genetic code can be used to prove that your supplement really contains what you say it does. The bad news for some is that if you claim your supplement has things it doesn't modern genetics makes it painfully easy to spot.

I. Widespread Fraud

The New York State Attorney General revealed this month that four of the largest retail and nutrition stores in the country were carrying supplements that lacked the compounds they claimed to.  The cease-and-desist letter order those supplements off store shelves under state and federal labeling laws.

Target Walmart Walgreens GNC Supplements Cease and Desist Letter by jasonmick

The retail chains involved include Target Corp. (TGT), Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), and Walgreens (traded under Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. (WAG)).  Also included was supplements chain GNC (GNC Holdings Inc. (GNC)), the nation's largest specialty retailer of health and wellness products.

The letters in New York only impact that state, but consumers in other states would be wise to note and beware the supplements that were found to lack the components they claimed on their labels.  Those include:


  • GNC
    • Herbal Plus
      • Gingko Biloba
      • St. John's Wort
      • Ginseng
      • Echinacea
      • Saw Palmetto
  • Target
    • Up & Up (store brand)
      • Gingko Biloba
      • St. John's Wort
      • Valerian Root
  • Walgreens
    • Finest Nutrition (third party brand)
      • Gingko Biloba
      • St. John's Wort
      • Ginseng
      • Garlic
      • Echinacea
  • Walmart
    • Spring Valley Herbs/Natural Foods
      • Gingko Biloba
      • St. John's Wort
      • Ginseng
      • Garlic
      • Echinacea
      • Saw Palmetto
It's worth noting that while there was no DNA trace of the compounds found in the testing, traces of those plants' DNA were found in other major brands tested (so it's unlikely that the particular extraction process simply discarded the DNA).  Further, traces of DNA from unlisted filler/contaminant plants including DNA from asparagus, primrose, rice, wheat, French bean, palm, and daisy (among others) were found.

Herbal Life bad supplements

As the letters point out the fillers not only suggest that the components were unlikely to have failed the test due to being exceedingly "pure", they also should have been listed on the label.  By not listing these fillers, the supplement companies ran the risk of triggering allergic reactions.  A person with a wheat allergy, for example, might check the label, see that wheat is not listed as an ingredient, and take the supplement only to have a serious allergic reaction due to the unlisted filler/contaminant ingredients.

New York's State Attorney General, Eric T. Schneiderman, complains in the letter:
Mislabeling, contamination and false advertising are illegal.  They also pose unacceptable risks to New York families — especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients.

II. The Impact

Those with a solid grasp of biochemistry and nutrition have long recognized that buying supplements from large third parties in processed form can be a dangerous game as you have essentially no easy way of verifying the manufacturer's claims of ingredients and purity.

Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 -- a federal law -- the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires supplement makers to accurately label the contents of their supplements.  But the FDA has no authority to investigate supplement contents, so the law is essentially a triviality and supplements manufacturers are left to obey an honor code.  States, however, are free to go to additional lengths, as New York did in this case.

Scrutiny of supplements has risen amid cases of supplements contaminated with viruses, allergens, or other undesirable chemicals such as steroids.  With modern gene sequencing tools third party testers finally have an effective tool to determine what is and isn't in a given herbal supplement.  Cost is modest, but with a program of random sampling from store shelves, appears to be relatively worthwhile early on.  The picture, thus far, is a pretty ugly one of top brands carried by the nation's top retailers engaged in outright fraud.

DNA image
Modern gene testing makes verifying supplement ingredients much easier. [Image Source: Mashable]

The apparent audacity of the fraud caught even some experts by surprise.  Commented supplement safety expert and Harvard Medical School instructor, Dr. Pieter Cohen.  As stated above, he found the extreme lack of DNA in these isolated cases or extreme contamination with unlisted DNA products in others particularly damning and hard to "explain away" in terms of the manufacturing process (as I suggest above).  In remarks to The New York Times he comments:

If this data is accurate, then it is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry.  We’re talking about products at mainstream retailers like Walmart and Walgreens that are expected to be the absolute highest quality.... The absence of DNA does not explain the high percentage of contaminants found in these products.  The burden is now with the industry to prove what is in these supplements.

Walgreens is arguably being most proactive removing the suspect supplements from store shelves not just in New York, but nationwide.  GNC will remove the supplements in New York but made no promises to remove them elsewhere, claiming it tested all of its products "using validated and widely used testing methods." (The statement potentially exposes GNC to additional liability if the claims are upheld.)

Walmart said only it would "take appropriate action" to respond to the letter and Target had no comment at present.

Target Up & Up supplements
Target's Up&Up brand was among those who tested positive for contaminants and whose herbal supplements did not appear to contain the herbs claimed. [Image Source: The New York Times]

The manufacturers involved -- and potentially the retailers -- may be subject to civil suits, including class actions, based on these findings.  For consumers who didn't get their money's worth or -- worse yet -- had an allergic reaction to an unlisted contaminant found in the study, you may be eligible to receive damages if the deceptive labelling goes to court.  The guilty parties may be in trouble not only under the 1994 supplement law, but also under consumer protection laws barring deceptive advertising practices.

As usual, the rule appears to be buyer beware, but the good news is that there's finally beginning to be some degree of accountability for peddlers of snake-oil remedies.

Sources: New York Attorney General [press release], The New York Times

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