Science Slams “Supplements”

February 10, 2015

Like the snake-oil products of yesteryear, which ran afoul of the 1907 Food and Drug Act, today’s “herbal dietary supplements” were dealt a severe blow in New York state when the attorney general ordered four major, national retailers to stop selling such store-brand products. Concluded the state’s top lawman, Eric T. Schneiderman: “Misbranding, contamination and false advertising are illegal. They also pose unacceptable risk to New York families—especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients.”

The state investigation focused on Walmart, Target, Walgreens, and GNC (the General Nutrition Corporation, purveyor of “health” products). Sophisticated modern tests were used—tests that were not even dreamed of a century ago when federal chemists analyzed the popular “cures” of the day. The impressive new technology utilized a type of genetic testing called DNA bar coding. This allows identification of organic—plant and animal—substances by searching for short DNA sequences that are unique to each. Similar to the bar codes on store items, these can be quickly compared with those of known plants in an electronic database. (This same technique has been used to uncover labeling fraud within the seafood industry.)

As shown by the tests, many of the products were bogus. At Walmart, for example, packaged “Ginkgo biloba” (a Chinese herb alleged to enhance memory), actually consisted of little more than powdered radish, some houseplants, and—astonishingly—wheat, given that the product was billed as wheat- and gluten-free! At Target, three of six of their herbal supplements—Ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort, and valerian root (sold as a sleep aid)—actually tested negative for those herbs.

Also analyzed was Walgreens’ store brand of ginseng (another Chinese herb, promoted for “physical endurance and vitality”); it lacked ginseng (which is so in demand in China that it imports American ginseng [Nickell 2012]). And at GNC, the law enforcement agency found pills having unlisted ingredients that were used as fillers. Among these were legumes, the family of herbs that includes soybeans and peanuts, hazardous to persons with allergies.

The story was prominently covered by the New York Times (O’Connor 2015) which had previously prompted the attorney general’s investigation by referring to research in Canada. There, the University of Guelph discovered that up to a third of the herbal supplements tested failed to contain the very plants their labels listed. Instead, the products consisted of cheap fillers. Nevertheless, the Washington Post (Millman 2015) noted that Americans spent $13 billion on the supplements in 2013, adding “One of their biggest boosters is syndicated TV host Mehmet Oz of ‘Dr. Oz’ fame, even though ‘America’s doctor,’ as he’s also known, has gotten into trouble for pushing pills with little medical grounding.”

How do such products escape the strict oversight from the FDA that is expected of pharmaceuticals? The answer is that federal law has shielded the supplement industry from the rigorous approval process the FDA applies to prescription drugs. The chief architect and sponsor of that law, Republican senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, is an unwavering supporter of supplements. According to the Times (O’Connor 2015), “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.”


Millman, Jason. 2015. Americans ignore science, spend $13 billion on dietary supplements. Buffalo News, February 6 (from the Washington Post).

Nickell, Joe. 2012. Traditional Chinese Medicine: Views East and West. Skeptical Inquirer 36:2 (March/April), 18–20.

O’Connor, Anahad. 2015. Four retailers told by state to stop selling supplements. Buffalo News, February 3 (from the New York Times).