The PJ Tatler

Herbal Supplements Fire Back Against Fraud Claims

Last week the Attorney General of New York, Eric Schneiderman, ordered four major retailers, WalMart, Walgreens, Target and GNC to stop selling “store-brand” herbal supplements. The reason: testing had revealed that barely 21% of the supplements contained DNA from the plants purportedly in the product.

The test used to determine the contents of the supplements is called DNA testing and it examines whether the appropriate plant DNA is actually in the bottle of herbs labeled as such.  Industry groups at the center of the controversy say the test is inadequate for supplements which have gone through extensive processing.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require the same approval process for herbal supplements to which prescription drugs are subject, manufacturers merely have to verify the products are safe and properly labeled. Certain herbal supplements that make health claims aren’t tested for efficacy, only for safety. Obviously, the government wants to get into the game of regulating herbal supplements but as of yet has not managed to do so. Who knows how much of this current claptrap is to stir up enough trouble so the government has to step in an “fix” the industry.

Scheiderman’s order to remove the supplements from shelves came following a large study from Clarkson University he commissioned.

The Clarkson study tested hundreds of bottles of store-brand herbal supplements sold as treatments for everything from memory loss to prostate trouble, and found 4 out of 5 contained none of the herbs listed on the labels.

The investigation looked into numerous supplements, including echinacea, ginseng, St. John’s wort, garlic, ginkgo biloba and saw palmetto, were contaminated with substances including rice, beans, pine, citrus, asparagus, primrose, wheat, houseplant and wild carrot. In many cases, unlisted contaminants were the only plant material found in the product samples.

But the dietary supplement industry has a problem with DNA testing and consumer advocacy groups don’t like the process because it doesn’t test for contamination.

“There’s no problem with DNA barcoding as a science; however, it should be used appropriately. It has limitations,” said Nandakumara Sarma, director of dietary supplements for US Pharmacopeia, which sets quality standards and testing protocols for drugs, vitamins and supplements.

The United Natural Products Alliance, a trade group for the industry, is sending people around the country to purchase the supplements singled out by Schneiderman and will submit them to botanical testing labs for analysis.

“They will perform universally accepted methods and procedures to test the products and will independently report their findings, which will be made public,” said Loren Israelsen, the group’s president. “We feel the most appropriate response to bad science is good science.”

Another group, the American Botanical Council a non-profit research and education group was critical of the Guelph Study, another study using DNA fingerprinting to measure the contents of herbal supplements.

“We raised the question if any of these products are extracts, and if so, what other analytical technologies were used to help ensure the validity of the results obtained by DNA testing,” said Mark Blumenthal, the council’s founder and director.

“DNA testing seldom is able to properly identify chemically complex herbal extracts, because often DNA doesn’t get through the extraction process,” Blumenthal said.

There is a third party certification available for products to verify their contents. “US Pharmacopeia provides independent third-party certification to drug and supplement manufacturers, who can then use the certification to assure consumers their products are genuine.” The director of the verification program, John Atwater says the program is voluntary and only 1% of supplements carry the USP mark.

He noted the program is voluntary. “It’s up to manufacturers and consumers to demand it,” he said.