What are you getting when you buy herbal supplements?

1741-7015-11-222-3Well, this is frightening!

An article in the New York Times a few days ago reported on the huge mess that is the supplement industry. When you buy herbal supplements, you may not be getting what you paid for… and sometimes the substitute materials are potentially dangerous!

Briefly, a group of researchers from Canada bought a lot of popular herbal supplements from the U.S. and Canada and used DNA barcoding to figure out what they had actually gotten. In lieu of St. John’s Wort, they got rice in one bottle and Alexandrian senna, a powerful laxative, in another. In place of Gingko biloba, they got black walnut–potentially deadly for people with nut allergies.

A shocking 30 out of 44 samples included substitute plants rather than the plants they were supposed to contain. That’s almost 70%! And roughly 60% of the samples contained plants that weren’t listed on the labels.

In the figure shown here, you can see how the results broke down by company. Each company is represented by a different letter along the bottom. Only two companies appeared to be providing what they said they were providing… Other sellers provided consistently contaminated projects. Unfortunately for consumers, the authors didn’t list companies by name.

Shelly Burgess, a spokesperson for the FDA, said “Unfortunately, we are seeing a very high percentage — approximately 70 percent — of firms’ noncompliance,” she said, “and we are very active in taking enforcement actions against such violations.” Come again? If the FDA were “very active” in taking action, then 70% of firms wouldn’t be noncompliant, right?

Here’s a link to the original study, DNA barcoding detects contamination and substitution in herbal products by Newmaster et al.

One thought on “What are you getting when you buy herbal supplements?

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