Study: Your Herbal Supplement Probably Doesn’t Actually Have Herbs In It

Surprise! Your cabinet full of herbal supplements may just be a cabinet full of magic bullshit beans. A recent investigation of herbal supplements sold in four major retailers — GNC, Walmart, Target and Walgreens — have revealed that the vast majority of their herbal supplements do not actually contain the herbs they say they do.

As it turns out, all that echinacea, garlic*, gingko biloba, ginseng, saw palmetto, St. John’s wort and valerian root you’ve been buying is pretty much just ingredients like mustard, powdered rice, peas, carrots, turnips and wheat with some beans thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, they apparently don’t list these ingredients on the label, either, which could be troublesome for people with allergies.

Out of 24 different brands tested with DNA barcoding, only five turned out to actually contain the ingredient advertised. Walmart’s results were–unsurprisingly–the worst, and literally none of their herbal supplements contained what they said they did. Target did the best, with one of the six products tested being an unqualified positive, and two others containing the purported ingredients alongside other unlisted plants.

Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York State attorney general, has sent cease-and-desist letters to the retailers, demanding they remove the products from their shelves.

The problem with herbal supplements is that they aren’t regulated by the FDA, or anyone for that matter. As the result of a 1994 law crafted by Sen. Orrin Hatch the FDA is not allowed to regulate herbal products the way they would prescription drugs.

Via The New York Times:

The law’s sponsor and chief architect, Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, is a steadfast supporter of supplements. He has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the industry and repeatedly intervened in Washington to quash proposed legislation that would toughen the rules.

Mr. Hatch led a successful fight against a proposed amendment in 2012 that would have required supplement makers to register their products with the F.D.A. and provide details about their ingredients. Speaking on the floor of the Senate at the time, Mr. Hatch said the amendment was based on “a misguided presumption that the current regulatory framework for dietary supplements is flawed.”

So, there is no one testing the claims of these products. Someone could literally sell an herbal product claiming to give you the ability to fly, and there is no government agency saying they can’t. This isn’t to say herbal supplements never work–I’m sure they do for some people when the pills they take actually contain the herb–but it does mean that they aren’t required to actually work–or not be dangerous.

I totally get the impulse to want to believe that “natural” products are better than actual medicine. It certainly sounds better. But I have to say, if these things were actually effective and safe, manufacturers probably would not be so hesitant to have them actually tested and regulated for safety purposes. As wholesome as “natural” sounds, I am pretty darn suspicious of any industry that pays off elected officials to avoid regulation.

I also say this as a person who regularly takes melatonin to sleep and “Blood Builder” iron pills for anemia, which are also not regulated. They work for me, for sure, but I would certainly feel better if I could be sure they were safe and I could know what was in them.

Walgreens has told The New York Times that they will take the junk products off their shelves immediately, and Walmart and GNC say they will take appropriate action. Target has not yet commented.

[The New York Times]

*I maintain that if you need to take a garlic pill, you are cooking wrong. Just put garlic in literally everything you eat, duh.