The supplement industry consisting of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and herbals or botanicals is a multibillion-dollar business. A 2013 survey from the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) found that 68 percent of all U.S. adults take dietary supplements, of which there are more than 85,000. Some of these products have effects that are similar to conventional medicine. Fish oil, for example, contains omega-3 fatty acids which may help lower triglyceride levels and thus may help lower heart disease risk.
However, as research indicates and as a recent investigation in New York found, many supplements – herbals in particular – do not do as promised and may not be what product labels say they are. While fans of supplements swear to a myriad of benefits including boosted immunity, enhanced memory, strengthened muscles and reduced hot flashes, the jury remains out on the effectiveness of these products.
What Happened in New York
After an investigation on a number of popular herbals sold at Walgreens, Walmart, GNC and Target found that the products contained little to none of the herbs that were advertised, the New York state attorney general’s office ordered the businesses to stop marketing them. The supplements involved are store-brand echinacea, garlic, Gingko biloba, ginseng, St. John’s wort and saw palmetto. At Target, the order additionally included store-brand valerian root.
Eric T. Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general, said tests conducted on these particular supplements revealed them to be full of cheap, unlisted fillers including ground-up rice, beans, asparagus and assorted houseplant material.
“Mislabeling, contamination and false advertising are illegal,” said Schneiderman. “They also pose unacceptable risks to New York families – especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients.”
The four retailers stopped selling the supplements in New York in February. Walgreens and Target then pulled the products nationwide. Across the border, Health Canada is also looking into the attorney general’s findings.
Meanwhile, the CRN, a leading trade association for the supplement industry, called the investigation a “self-serving publicity stunt under the guise of protecting public health.”
“Responsible manufacturers and retailers take careful measures to ensure their consumers can purchase high-quality botanical supplements that contain what is on the label. We stand by the safety and regulation of these products,” said Steve Mister, president and CEO of CRN.
The order does not affect sales of brand name supplements like Nature’s Bounty and Nature Made. As they were prior to the investigation, sales of these products are brisk.
Who Regulates Supplements?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have jurisdiction over the supplement industry. Whereas drug products are subject to FDA testing prior to being made available to the public, the safety and effectiveness of supplements are assessed by their manufacturers. Only after there are reports of problems can the FDA get involved and launch an investigation or initiate a recall. Under these circumstances, permanently removing an ineffective or dangerous supplement from the marketplace can take years.
If you use a supplement, herbal or otherwise, it is important to know exactly what you are taking. The FDA and Nutrition.gov websites provide information that can assist you in assessing your supplement.
It’s also important that you always check with your health care provider before taking any supplement. All of these products may have side effects. They may also interact with prescribed and over-the-counter (OTC) medications and even other supplements you are already taking.
The LHSFNA’s Smart Medicine brochure includes a medication record where you can list your prescription and OTC drugs and your supplements. Keep this record up to date and bring it with you when you visit your health care provider. Click here to order this and other materials developed by the Fund that can help protect your health and safety.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]