The Controversy Over Herbal Supplements

Herbal supplements are a massive industry. In 2013, a Canadian study reported 65,000 different dietary supplements on the market with about 150 million regular consumers. That means that nearly half of the American people routinely invest in supplements, accounting for $6 billion spent on the products in 2013.

All of this is done based on a certain degree of trust – confidence that those bottles contain exactly what the label says. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Truthfully, though, “tainted” supplements are really nothing new. For those who watch the industry, it’s not uncommon for the FDA to find prescription drugs in “herbal” products or to learn that those supplements contain close-to-none of the key ingredient.

But when this happens in major retailers like Target, GNC, Walmart and Walgreens – places many people are likely to purchase supplements – it’s going to make big news. And that’s exactly what happened last week when researchers at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York tested herbal products from these national chains.

Their findings were startling and upsetting to many. However, the research is not without its critics, including a few unexpected organizations. To get a clear picture of the issue, then, we need to look at both sides of the controversy.


The Initial Research

At the request of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, researchers collected multiple bottles of six different herbal supplements from Target, GNC, Walmart and Walgreens. The specific products that they looked at included St. John’s Wort, ginseng, echinacea, ginkgo biloba, garlic and saw palmetto – focusing on the store-brand of each.

The supplements were then put through DNA testing to determine whether or not they contained what the label claimed, in the amounts that were listed. A frightening amount of supplements failed miserably, not only lacking the key ingredient but containing substances that were not listed. A few products – including Spring Valley St. John’s Wort and Herbal Plus Ginseng – were nothing but cheap fillers like beans, rice, wheat, garlic and even ground-up houseplants.

Understandably, there as been a massive and fast public outrage over the findings. Not only is this complete fraud, but it could also be a serious danger to people with food allergies.

For the most part, the stores have responded well to the findings – only Target has refused to comment until they are able to review the research.


The Other Side

Many organizations, though, have criticized the DNA testing used in the trials as unreliable, “bad” science. Primarily, this is because the DNA of plants can be damaged or altogether removed during processing. And DNA testing won’t find extracts of a specific herb if that was used instead of the actual portions of the plant.

What’s interesting is that we would naturally expect trade organizations to be critical of the research – and they have been, even launching their own studies. But when independent watchdog groups that test and review supplements have negative things to say about the science, it is truly surprising.

Perhaps the biggest shock is that the director of US Pharmacopeia (USP), a group that sets quality standards and testing protocols for drugs, vitamins and supplements, joined the critics – stating that DNA testing is a useful scientific tool but that it has its limits.

Another independent testing lab,, told CBS News that the use of DNA testing was inappropriate in this application.


The Bottom Line For You

There is definitely something wrong with the supplement industry, which is largely unregulated by the Federal government, and this study gives further proof that the industry is in need of reform. But the science behind it is undoubtedly faulty and should be backed up by more reliable testing techniques. These techniques are out there and should have been used in the first place.

To protect yourself, then, do your own research. If you do decide to continue to invest in supplements, look for a USP or similar stamp which shows that they product has been independently tested.




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About jonathan.thompson

Jonathan Thompson is a Certified Personal Trainer and Running Coach with the American Council on Exercise, specializing in nutrition. In addition to his real-world experience working with clients, his articles and blogs on fitness advice have been published on many websites and magazines.