Fake Supplements Exposed—7 Ways to Find the Real Thing

Thursday Mar 26 | BY |
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Dietary supplements. Variety pills. Vitamin capsules on the spoon. 3d

Recent tests show that many supplements are not what they say they are.
Is there any way to know if what you’re getting is the real thing?

Take a look in your cupboard. Do you have any supplements from Walgreens, GNC, Target, or Wal-mart?

If so, you may want to toss them out.

According to DNA tests completed by the New York State attorney general’s office, supplements from all four of these giant retailers proved to contain none of the ingredients they were supposed to contain.

On top of that, researchers found lots of cheap fillers, some of which may be dangerous for individuals with food allergies.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about fraud in the supplement industry. Is there any way to know for sure if what you’re buying is the real thing?

What They Found Out About Supplements in New York

Authorities from the attorney general’s office sent “cease and desist” letters to all four retailers after DNA testing revealed the pills inside the bottles contained little of what the outside labeling said they contained.

For the tests, authorities gathered sample products from various locations around New York State, and then genetically tested them five times per sample. Results showed the following:

  • GNC: Six popular GNC “Herbal Plus” brand supplements purchased at four different New York State locations were tested. These included ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort, ginseng, garlic, Echinacea, and saw palmetto. Results found no trace of the actual herb in the gingko biloba, St. John’s wort, ginseng, or Echinacea products. They found positive results for saw palmetto in only one of the samples. Garlic was the only one that tested positive in all tests. Fillers: Tests also discovered the supplements contained DNA from rice, beans, houseplants, spruce, asparagus, wheat/grass, citrus, and primrose.
  • Target: Six of Target’s own “Up and Up” brand dietary supplements, purchased at three different New York State locations, were tested. These included gingko biloba, St. John’s wort, garlic, Echinacea, saw palmetto, and valerian root. Results found no trace of the actual herb in the gingko biloba, St. John’s wort, and valerian products. Most tests did find Echinacea and saw palmetto, though not all. All tests found garlic. Fillers: Included DNA from rice, beans, houseplants, wild carrot, and pea family.
  • Walgreens: Six of Walgreens’ own “Finest Nutrition” brand dietary supplements, purchased at three different New York State locations, were tested. These included gingko biloba, St. John’s wort, ginseng, garlic, Echinacea, and saw palmetto. Results showed no trace of the actual herb in all but the saw palmetto products, which tested positive for saw palmetto. Fillers: Included DNA from rice, houseplants, wheat, palm, and daisy.
  • Wal-mart: Six of Wal-Mart’s own “Spring Valley” brand dietary supplements purchased from three different New York State locations were tested. These included the same products as those listed above for Walgreens. Results showed no trace of the actual herb in four of the products, and only small amounts in some samples of saw palmetto and garlic. Overall, results were deemed negative for the actual supplement material in all six products. Fillers: Included DNA from rice, houseplants, mustard, wheat, radish, garlic, a tropical root crop, wheat grass, and white pine.

In all four cases, the attorney general demanded that the companies stop selling the products immediately, and provide the office with information related to the manufacturing, production, previous DNA testing, distribution, and acquisition of the products.

“Mislabeling, contamination and false advertising are illegal,” he stated. “They also pose unacceptable risks to New York families—especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients.”

This Isn’t the First Time Supplements Have Been Found Wanting

Though this was perhaps one of the most scathing reports concerning the supplement industry, it certainly isn’t the first to cast light on some of the shady goings on there.

In 2010, a Congressional investigation of herbal supplements found traces of lead, mercury, and other heavy metals in nearly all products tested.

In 2012, researchers published a comment in the Archives of Internal Medicine warning that the current lack of regulation in the industry could lead to “adverse events.”

That same year, Consumer Reports found that more than 6,300 reports of serious adverse events associated with dietary supplements were sent to the FDA between 2007 and 2012, including 115 deaths and more than 2,100 hospitalizations, 1,000 serious injuries or illnesses, and 900 emergency-room visits. Experts believe adverse events related to supplements remain underreported, and that the real numbers are much higher.

In 2012, researchers from Stony Brook University medical center tested 36 black cohosh supplements from online and chain stores, and found that a quarter of them were not black cohosh at all, but contained an ornamental plant from China (Asian Actaea).

In 2013, Canadian researchers used DNA testing on 44 bottles of popular supplements sold by 12 companies. They found many of the products contained none of what they said they did, and were filled with soybeans, wheat, and rice instead. One-third of the products contained not a trace of the item advertised on the bottle. Researchers concluded “most of the products tested were of poor quality, including considerable product substitution, contamination and use of fillers.”

A 2013 Consumer Lab report on the testing of 75 multivitamins found defects in nearly 40 percent. Among these, 12 multivitamins provided less vitamin A, vitamin C, or folate than claimed, some with less than 30 percent of the listed amounts. A range of products also contained more than the tolerable limits of niacin, vitamin A, magnesium, and/or zinc.

That same year, 72 people in 16 states developed hepatitis after consuming a tainted supplement. Three had to go through liver transplants, and one woman died.

In 2014, Dr. Pieter A. Cohen published a perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine in which he noted that “more than 500 supplements have already been found to be adulterated with pharmaceuticals or pharmaceutical analogues, including new stimulants, novel anabolic steroids, unapproved antidepressants, banned weight-loss medications, and untested sildenafil analogues.” He added that previous studies had identified stimulants in widely marketed supplements, including a new analogue of methamphetamine.

The New York State attorney general also acknowledged in his cease and desist letters that previous studies conducted by the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics at the University of Guelph “and others” had already alerted the supplement industry “to the fact that it is not providing the public with authentic products without substitution, contamination or fillers,” and that it was disappointing that “the industry has failed to clean up its practices.

The Industry Says the Testing is Flawed

What’s the industry’s response? They’re questioning the method of testing, stating that DNA testing is ineffective because manufacturing processes can destroy DNA.

Genetic testing allows researchers to identify plants by looking for sequences of DNA and comparing those with others in an electronic database. It is possible for manufacturing to destroy DNA, but in this case that explanation is coming up short. Researchers did find traces of the proper ingredients in some supplements, and also found DNA from other plants (houseplants, rice, wheat and grass) that apparently were not destroyed. Why would that be?

Industry experts maintain that DNA testing alone is inadequate, and only certified botanical analyses are acceptable for determining what’s in the supplements. They add that particularly when dealing with plant extracts, DNA may be missing, since it often doesn’t make it through the extraction process.

Even Tod Cooperman, president of ConsumerLab.com, dismissed the attorney general’s studies as “inappropriate for validating herbal supplements,” according to CBS News. (ConsumerLab frequently reports on defects in dietary supplements using their own testing processes.)

Other critics have noted that DNA testing is insufficient as it does not detect dangerous contaminants like methamphetamine and other drugs or potentially dangerous chemicals. GNC has also responded, arguing that the DNA testing is not the best way to detect herbs in herbal supplements. Dr. Pieter Cohen, author of the 2014 perspective mentioned above pointing out the problems with supplements, actually agreed with GNC. He told the Genetic Literacy Project that he is an outspoken critic of the industry and rarely agreed with GNC, “but on this DNA barcode question I do.”

Instead, traditional testing, which involves chromatography to look for patterns in the botanical ingredient, are considered the standard when it comes to detecting herbs.

Retailers are likely to lean on this argument, particularly since the lawsuits are piling up. So far, at least six class-action lawsuits have been filed against Wal-mart, Target, GNC, and The Walgreen Co., with plaintiffs bringing counts of deceptive trade practices, unjust enrichment, breach of warranties, and negligence.

Meanwhile, Walgreens has stated it will remove the offending products. Wal-mart and GNC said they would respond “appropriately.” Target did not comment.

Nobody’s Watching

Many Americans purchase supplements under the false assumption that the FDA regulates them. But go to the FDA’s site on the matter and you see it just isn’t so.

According to the administration itself: “Dietary supplements are not approved by the government for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed.” Manufacturers and distributors are responsible for making sure their products are safe, and “do not contain contaminants or impurities, and are accurately labeled.”

Studies like those above highlight how toothless the FDA is when it comes to enforcing these standards, as manufacturers are left to police themselves. It’s only when a product is found to be unsafe that the FDA can take action to remove it from the market.

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor of Harvard Health, urged increased regulation on supplements in 2012, stating that under the terms of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), supplements can be marketed “without any evidence that they are effective or safe.” He added in his NEJM perspective: “If consumers and physicians are to have confidence that all supplements are safe, the law regulating supplements must be reformed.”

Shelly Burgess, a spokeswoman for the FDA, told the New York Times that while companies are required to meet certain standards, many were ignoring the rules, and that the administration was seeing a “very high percentage—approximately 70 percent—of firms’ noncompliance.” She added that the FDA is taking action against such violations, but others have noted that the administration’s resources are limited.

What You Can Do to Find Safe Supplements

With all this going on, what are health-conscious people to do?

After all, we all know that the best nutrients are found in food, but sometimes we want to supplements for various applications. Echinacea to ward off a cold or respiratory illness. St. John’s wort to even out mood swings. Ginseng to boost the immune system.

What then?

Though there is always a risk, taking the following seven steps will help you increase your odds of actually getting what you’re paying for.

  1. USP Verified: Look for this label on your product. It indicates that the product has been independently tested and found to contain the ingredients listed in the declared potency; that it does not contain harmful levels of certain contaminants like lead, mercury, pesticides, bacteria, and molds; that it will break down within a specified amount of time in the body; and that it has been made according to FDA good manufacturing practices. Find more information here.
  2. Location of Manufacturer: Check the label to see where the supplement comes from. Though tests on U.S. products have shown defects, those coming from other countries, including China, Mexico, and India, have been found to contain toxic ingredients and prescription drugs. Best bet: choose supplements manufactured in California, as the state has more stringent safety standards compared to other states, particularly concerning contaminants in supplements.
  3. Check for Tainted Supplements: The FDA keeps an updated list of tainted supplements you can check here.
  4. Check with ConsumerLab: ConsumerLab regularly provides independent testing of dietary supplements. When you become a member, you receive updates on test results.
  5. Look for the NSF Label: NSF International is an independent, not-for-profit organization that provides third-party certification for dietary supplements. Find more at nsf.org.
  6. Choose Reputable Companies: Some companies have a good reputation for providing quality herbal supplements, based on ConsumerLab tests, traceability programs, purity tests, and USDA-certified organic standards. Mother Earth Living recommends Herb Pharm, Gaia Herbs, Rainbow Light Nutritional Systems, New Chapter, and Barlean’s Organic Oils.
  7. Ask Questions: You can contact the manufacturer and ask key questions that should give you some idea of how they produce their products. Can they provide lot-specific certificates of analysis for every ingredient they use? Are raw materials purchased from distributors or directly from the farms that grow them? Are the products submitted to a qualified laboratory for independent quality testing?

Do you have other tips for finding quality supplements? Please share them with our readers.

* * *

Anahad O’Connor, “What’s In Those Supplements?” New York Times, February 3, 2015, http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/03/sidebar-whats-in-those-supplements/?module=BlogPost-Title&version=Blog%20Main&contentCollection=Alternative%20Medicine&action=Click&pgtype=Blogs&region=Body%3E&_r=0.

Anahad O’Conner, “New York Attorney General Targets Supplements at Major Retailers,” New York Times, February 3, 2015, http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/03/new-york-attorney-general-targets-supplements-at-major-retailers/?module=BlogPost-Title&version=Blog%20Main&contentCollection=Alternative%20Medicine&action=Click&pgtype=Blogs&region=Body&_r=0.

Donald M. Marcus, Arthur P. Grollman, “The Consequences of Ineffective Regulation of Dietary Supplements,” Arch Intern Med. 2012; 172(13):1035-1036, http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1213825.

Sarah Kaplan, “GNC, Target, Wal-Mart, Walgreens accused of selling adulterated ‘herbals,’” Washington Post, February 3, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/02/03/gnc-target-wal-mart-walgreens-accused-of-selling-fake-herbals/.

Pieter A. Cohen, “Hazards of Hindsight—Monitoring the Safety of Nutritional Supplements,” NEJM, April 3, 2014; 370:1277-1280, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1315559.

Anahad O’Conner, “Herbal Supplements Are Often Not What They Seem,” New York Times, November 3, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/05/science/herbal-supplements-are-often-not-what-they-seem.html?_r=1&.

Steven G Newmaster, et al., “DNA barcoding detects contamination and subsitution in North American herbal products,” BMC Medicine, October 11, 2013; 11:222, http://www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7015/11/222/abstract.

“Dietary Supplements: What You Need to Know,” FDA, May 11, 2014, http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm109760.htm.

“Multivitamins Put to the Test; Defects Found in Nearly 40 Percent Chosen for Review,” April 9, 2013, https://www.consumerlab.com/reviews/multivitamin_review_comparisons/multivitamins/.

“10 surprising dangers of vitamins and supplements,” Consumer Reports, September 2012, http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2012/09/10-surprising-dangers-of-vitamins-and-supplements/index.htm.

Patrick J. Skerett, “FDA needs stronger rules to ensure the safety of dietary supplements,” Harvard Health, February 2, 2012, http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/fda-needs-stronger-rules-to-ensure-the-safety-of-dietary-supplements-201202024182.

“Herbal supplements industry lashes out at fraud claims,” CBS News, February 8, 2015, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/herbal-supplements-industry-lashes-out-at-fraud-claims/.

Tabitha M. Powledge, “DNA testing under fire in wake of fake herbal supplements investigation,” Genetic Literacy Project, February 10, 2015, http://geneticliteracyproject.org/2015/02/10/dna-testing-under-fire-in-wake-of-fake-herbal-supplements-investigation/.

Baker DA, et al., “DNA barcode identification of black cohosh herbal dietary supplements,” J AOAC Int., Jul-Aug 2012; 95(4):1023-34, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22970567.

Gardiner Harris, “Study Finds Supplements Contain Contaminants,” New York Times, May 25, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/26/health/policy/26herbal.html.

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho. www.colleenmstory.com


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  1. Zyxomma says:

    The AG (I’m a New Yorker, and think Eric Schneiderman’s a peach) means well. However, he’s pushing for federal regulation, which could well be a disaster. I don’t know any serious health nut who shops at any of those stores. Health and peace.

  2. Tom CHHC says:

    Contrary to your assertion, ConsumerLab does not disclose the brand names of supplements that fail their testing as long as the manufacturers have paid a fee– $4,000 each per year– to become “members” of the organization. In my view this practice is highly unethical and therefore I do not support ConsumerLab. Besides, their views are heavily biased in favor of conventional medicine and their “panel of experts” is comprised only of MD’s, who received no training in medical school regarding supplements or other natural cures. Hardly a group of people I would rely on for accurate information regarding supplements.

  3. Dan says:

    Make sure the supplements you purchase say “standardized”. Or make your own.

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