A warning to herbal supplement users: Those store-brand ginkgo biloba tablets you bought may contain mustard, wheat, radish and other substances decidedly non-herbal in nature, but they’re not likely to contain any actual ginkgo biloba.
That’s according to an investigation by the New York State attorney general’s office into store-brand supplements at four national retailers — GNC, Target, Walgreens and Wal-Mart. All four have received cease-and-desist letters demanding that they stop selling a number of their dietary supplements, few of which were found to contain the herbs shown on their labels and many of which included potential allergens not identified in the ingredients list.
“Contamination, substitution and falsely labeling herbal products constitute deceptive business practices and, more importantly, present considerable health risks for consumers,” said the letters, first reported today by the New York Times.
Additionally, five of the 24 contained wheat and two contained beans without identifying them on the labels — both substances are known to cause allergic reactions in some people.
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Of the four retailers, Wal-Mart was the worst offender: None of its six supplements that were tested was found to contain purely the ingredient advertised. Target’s supplements were the least misleading of the lot — though that isn’t saying much, since tests on six of the brand’s products resulted in only one unqualified positive. Two of Target’s other supplements contained DNA from other plants alongside their purported ingredients, while the remaining three tested negative.
Harvard Medical School assistant professor Pieter Cohen, who is an expert on supplement safety, told the New York Times that the test results were so extreme he found them hard to accept. He suggested that the manufacturing process may have destroyed some of the ingredients’ DNA, rendering the DNA barcode test ineffective.
On the other hand, he said, “if this data is accurate, then it is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry.”
This investigation is just the latest in a series of blows against the dietary supplement industry. Supplements are not considered food or drugs, so they have long been only loosely regulated. Federal guidelines require companies to ensure that their products are safe and accurately labeled, but the FDA has little power to enforce that rule.
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