These days it seems like there’s a supplement for everything. High cholesterol? Take fish oil. Feeling depressed? SAMe can give you the boost you need. Suffer from gastrointestinal problems? Try probiotics. Worried about your eyesight? Vitamin A will help that. Want better skin? The solution is vitamin E. Get the blues in winter? Just add Vitamin D. The list goes on and on.
If you’re ready to jump on the supplement bandwagon, you may want to think again. Last year, the New York State Attorney General’s office found that four of the largest retail stores in the United States – Walmart, Target, Walgreens and GNC – were selling fraudulent herbal supplements that could be potentially dangerous. After testing each store’s top-selling store brands of supplements, they found that 79% of them did not contain even a trace amount of the herb they claimed to be selling. Instead, the products contained a number of potentially allergenic substances that were not listed on their labels. The office immediately sent letters to the companies, calling for them to immediately stop selling a range of products, including St. John’s Wort, Echinacea, Garlic and Ginseng.
This is not the only instance of mislabeling that has been addressed by New York’s Attorney General. Later the office issued formal cease and desist orders to 13 offending companies for selling one specific herbal supplement, Devil’s Claw, that did not contain the purported main ingredient. While some sources have called the specific method of testing used into question, one can’t help wondering at the inconsistencies shown in the supplements tested. How on earth can this happen? Doesn’t the FDA regulate health supplements?
Unfortunately, the answer is not really. Despite the fact that the supplement industry involves more than 61 billion dollars annually, supplements are regulated under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), a different set of regulations than those used for conventional food and drugs. Basically, this set of rules puts the responsibility for testing and regulating these products into the hands of the supplement manufacturers. They go so far as to state on their website that the “FDA is not authorized to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed.” Only after the products have reached the marketplace and are being bought and ingested by innocent consumers does the FDA have any real responsibility, and then only a vague directive that they take action against any adulterated or misbranded dietary supplement product. Huh? What kind of action? When? No one seems to know. Even after the headlines made by the New York Attorney General, the FDA has stayed out of that fray.
There are a number of “independent laboratories” that do conduct testing on supplements, including vitamins, herbs and probiotics. Most of these sites, however, charge consumers to view their results. One company that allows you to view their rankings without purchasing a membership, however, is LabDoor. Even though the manufacturers themselves must pay these companies for their testing, they seem to have similarly frightening results, with many products tested providing either much less or none of the advertised “active” ingredients.
So, what does this mean for the average person considering the use of supplements? Perhaps the best advice is to try to get your recommended RDA from actual food and recipe herb sources instead of from pills. And never start taking any supplement without consulting your physician. As for the current “wonder supplement?” Save your money.
But if you absolutely, positively have to buy an herbal, vitamin or probiotic supplement? Look for USP (United States Pharmacopeial Convention), NSF International or Consumer Lab on the label. Their seal shows that at least the product was tested by and received certification from a third party.