by Marion Nestle
Feb 4 2015

Buyers beware: supplements are not what they seem. Again.

I still quaintly read the paper copy of the New York Times so I know that the left column of yesterday’s  front page—judged by the editors as the second most important story of the day—was devoted to yet another exposé of supplement fraud.

The New York State attorney general did some sophisticated testing.  His report concludes that major supplement retailers—GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart—are selling herbal supplements that do not contain what the labels say they contain or contain unlabeled ingredients that could be allergenic.

The examples are either amusing or shocking, depending on point of view:

  • A popular store brand of ginseng pills at Walgreens, promoted for “physical endurance and vitality”…contained only powdered garlic and rice.
  • At Walmart…ginkgo biloba, a Chinese plant promoted as a memory enhancer, contained little more than powdered radish, houseplants and wheat — despite a claim on the label that the product was wheat- and gluten-free.
  • Three out of six herbal products at Target — ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort and valerian root, a sleep aid — tested negative for the herbs on their labels. But they did contain powdered rice, beans, peas and wild carrots.
  • And at GNC…it found pills with unlisted ingredients used as fillers, like powdered legumes, the class of plants that includes peanuts and soybeans, a hazard for people with allergies.

I’ve been writing about this kind of thing for years, but two aspects of this story are news.

  • First, the state is doing what the FDA ought to be doing if its hands weren’t tied by DSHEA, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.  That act essentially deregulated dietary supplements.
  • Second, these are not some fly-by-night supplement sellers.  They are major retailers.  The supplement industry’s argument that only a few unscrupulous small supplement makers are cheating on ingredients doesn’t work in this case.

Why don’t people stop taking supplements when they hear things like this?

The major proven benefits of supplements are their placebo effects.  The actual ingredients make no difference.

The obvious conclusion is that if you must buy supplements, buy the cheapest ones.  But that doesn’t work either because more expensive supplements produce stronger placebo effects.

Placebo effects are great things, and I’m for them.  But caveat emptor.

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  • Anne Bell

    Actually – if you must buy supplements – the solution is to look for the USP Verified Mark – at least that way you know it has been subject to strict quality control tests and you are getting exactly what you paid for. http://qualitymatters.usp.org/consumers-choose-quality-supplements-help-usp-verified-mark

  • TaargusTaargus

    Marion,
    Thanks for the great post – I’d love to know your thoughts on exercise supplements (protein for example) – do you consider these types of supplements as useless as the GNC unlisted ingredients? I’ve heard of voluntary testing by companies like bodybuilding.com (after they got in trouble of course) … does this change anything on what the supplements include?

  • TR

    High protein exercise supplements usually contain whey which is a left over by-product from making cheese. My advice is to save your money by drinking milk that is if you want your protein supplement to come from dairy. Otherwise, there are protein foods such as meat, beans, nuts, eggs… Eat a diverse diet and forget the supplements unless you like expensive, highly processed snacks because that’s all they really amount to.

  • David Lyness

    The only part of your editorial that makes any sense are the last two words. Caveat emptor. People will figure it out for themselves. And they have. Some buy supplements, some don’t. They don’t need federal nannies.

  • jeffjfl
  • Vee

    Hi Marion,
    Thanks for the great post! This is an eye opener for me.

  • Gail Nickel-Kailing

    Marion,
    At GoodFood World (www.goodfoodworld.com), my husband and I firmly believe that if you eat whole/minimally processed, organic food (not edible food-like substances) – mostly veggies and some wild-caught fish – you don’t need supplements. We have only given in to Vitamin D because we live in Seattle, where good quality sunlight is a rare during the winter months.

    If you must have herbs as an alternative, grow your own or buy organic at your local natural food co-op.

    Gail NK
    Co-publisher, GoodFood World

  • Fibro Bloggers

    I’m with the group wondering why people don’t stop buying vitamin supplements when they hear things like tis.

  • justjuliebean

    Federal nannies? Do you really think that it’s a corporation’s right to sell you x while giving you y? Are you so against any regulation that there should be no quality control whatsoever? This comment makes absolutely no sense, no part of it at all

  • mike harper

    I gotta mention probiotic supplements. I’ve been taking them for years, and I’ve been feeling healthier and more energized than I’ve ever felt before. http://bestprobiotics.org

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