Herbal Supplements Are Scarier Than They Seem

The ginseng and echinacea supplements you religiously take every morning might be nothing more than rice. An investigation by the New York attorney general's office found that many herbal supplements don't even contain the main ingredients they advertise. After it was outed by the investigation, the biggest supplement retailer in the U.S., GNC, announced plans to vamp up its testing process to restore customers' faith in GNC supplements. Better late than never, I guess, but lax regulations on supplements have allowed producers to get by with a lot over the years.

Following the investigation into herbal supplements from GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman's office ordered the stores to immediately stop selling certain products, including echinacea, ginseng, and St. John's wort. DNA testing on these pills found that 79 percent didn't even contain the purported main ingredient or consisted of ingredients not listed on the label. Walmart's supplements had the worst results, with only 4 percent of Walmart brand herbal pills actually containing the plants listed on the bottle.

Not only do herbal supplements not contain their implied main ingredient, many are stuffed with fillers, like rice, wheat, and beans. Some don't contain any plants at all, making us wonder what chemicals we've been ingesting under the guise of healthy pills.

In a press release, GNC said:

As part of its commitment to industry leadership, GNC will expand its testing processes deeper into its supply chain by leading ongoing industry efforts to integrate source material traceability standards including DNA barcoding where appropriate (prior to extraction processes) and enhance certain other aspects of its operations to provide consumers even greater confidence in its products. The Company believes that given its position as an industry leader, these measures, which would not have impacted availability of the products subject to this review, will result in the adoption of stricter minimum standards across the broader industry – a win for the industry, the Company and consumers.
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This deception is possible because of the lack of regulation on herbal supplements. Manufacturers do not have to prove that their products are safe or have any positive effects; they are only required to list their products' ingredients on the bottles, but apparently they can't even get that right. GNC's move to make sure they comply with this simple law should have happened from the beginning and yet the other retailers in question still haven't done so. In Attorney General Schneiderman's press release, David Schardt, senior nutritionist of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says:

The evidence for these herbs' effectiveness is sketchy to begin with. But when the advertised herbs aren't even in many of the products, it’s a sign that this loosely regulated industry is urgently in need of reform. Until then, and perhaps even after then, consumers should stop wasting their money.
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Because of the extremely lenient regulations, supplement companies have been able to hide a lot and they may not be as healthy as they claim. A 2014 study found that roughly 15 percent of people who take herbal or dietary supplements suffered liver problems. These pills are also known to cause complications with surgeries when the herbs interact poorly with anesthesia used to put patients to sleep and other medications used in medical procedures. Weight loss supplements may be the worst of all — often containing ingredients that have not been proven to help consumers lose weight, they can lead to some pretty serious health problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that taking OxyElite Pro pills led almost 100 people in 16 states to develop hepatitis, 47 of whom had to be hospitalized. Three needed new livers, and one died.

Multiple New York State senators and assemblymen are sponsoring legislation to further regulate the herbal and dietary supplement industry, but those proposed laws would only affect the state of New York if passed. For now, maybe just toss those pills in the trash.

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