What’s really “herbal” about supplements?

The use of herbs and plants has been part of the healing arts for thousands of years. Consumers spend $6 billion a year on herbal supplements, a broad category of dietary supplements derived from plants. Some of the most popular products feature as the active ingredient gingko biloba, St. John’s wort, ginseng, garlic, echinacea, saw palmetto, valerian root, cordyceps, and garcinia cambogia. Consumers buy these products because they want the advertised active ingredient. But what if those supplements don’t contain the beneficial herbs they claim? Or even contain ingredients that are harmful.

Three independent series of DNA tests show that there is no actual plant DNA in many of these plant-derived supplements. These tests also show that cheap fillers and contaminants are more often found than plant DNA of the primary ingredient. The New York Attorney General and Bailey & Glasser LLP have launched investigations into the herbal supplements industry. Bailey & Glasser has conducted dozens of DNA tests on a wide range of brands and products. Our findings are consistent with those of the New York Attorney General. We have filed two consumer fraud cases against Wal-Mart and Walgreens and are investigating other retailers and manufacturers.

The supplements industry, naturally, is in full push-back mode. The industry says that the DNA testing used by the New York Attorney General and Bailey & Glasser is not conclusive. Whatever the limitations of DNA testing, no one disputes two key findings:

  • Complete absence of plant DNA in many supplements advertised as gingko biloba, St. John’s wort, ginseng, garlic, echinacea, saw palmetto, valerian root, cordyceps, and garcinia cambogia.
  • Some amount of undisclosed contaminants and adulterants, including several that could pose a serious threat to health.

As difficult as it is to believe some of these retailers could not even get ‘garlic’ right. These supplements are expensive, and consumers should have confidence that they are buying something beneficial, not worthless products that might actually contain allergens and other contaminants. The onus is on the industry to prove it actually uses the claimed herbal ingredients in its products. Their own tests only prove that certain chemicals are present. Their tests don’t show plant material was used or present.

The only way to determine whether Wal-Mart, Walgreens and others really use plant material to make their supplements is to look at their records. There should be records showing purchases of raw materials; records showing testing of raw materials; manufacturing records; and so on. Washington Bailey & Glasser partners Greg Porter and Michael Murphy are pursuing the investigation.

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