Is it Echinacea, or Stinkweed, in that Bottle of Herbal Medicine? (March 3, 2015)
If you spend any time frequenting alternative news channels or websites, you are probably aware of the story from earlier this year regarding the selling of adulterated herbs by major retailers. (If you consume only conventional news, you may also be aware of this – however, you would have to have been watching pretty closely to have seen it, because that story came and went in the conventional media as quickly as a banker’s smile. Thus my constant admonitions to get news from more than one source, at least one of which should be somewhat disreputable.) Regardless, here is a bit of background.
In 2013 the New York Times ran a story about herbs and how the supplement bottles containing them often do not contain what the label says. This article was based on Canadian research at the University of Guelph (which also developed the technique of "DNA barcoding" they used to do the analyses) that found that as many as a third of herbal supplements sold as such contained none of the named product. Instead, different herbs and cheap fillers only were present. At the time, an FDA spokeswoman remarked that approximately 70% of herbal product manufacturers were not adhering to the prescribed good manufacturing practices. Indeed.
All this intrigued the office of the Attorney General of New York, which decided to conduct its own investigation. Using the aforementioned DNA barcoding technology, seven different products were tested, and lo and behold! a majority of the bottles sampled contained none of the named herb and what turned up instead was a lot of other stuff (said stuff further discussed below).
What is even more scandalous is that these herbs were not sold by a somewhat disreputable-looking dude at a farmers' market, but by major retailers, and by “major” I mean Walmart (which had the worst results), Walgreens, GNC and Target. Target came out the best of the four, but “best” only like it’s “best” to jump out of a third-floor window to avoid machine-gun fire. A majority of the bottles tested contained none of the listed herb, and instead had some combination of different herbs than those advertised, asparagus and other vegetable powders, bean powders, rice, “houseplants” and a whole lot of other miscellaneous products plus mystery DNA. Five of the bottles contained wheat and two of them had peanut and soybean powder, all of which are potential allergens and none of which were listed on the labels.
This means that if you bought a bottle of Walmart “Spring Valley” ginkgo biloba, you didn’t get ANY ginkgo. What you got was rice, dracaena (a “tropical houseplant”), mustard, wheat and radish. This product is advertised as gluten-free. WHEAT IN A WHEAT-FREE PRODUCT! And if you bought a bottle of Walgreens “Finest Nutrition” ginseng (ginseng is a Chinese herb with truly remarkable properties) you got powdered garlic and rice and No Ginseng. (Whereas if you bought the Walgreens garlic, you didn’t get garlic. You got palm, the aforementioned dracaena, wheat and rice. And that’s if you were lucky – ten of the fifteen tests on that product didn’t find anything even recognizable as plant DNA.) They used garlic in the ginseng tablets, and no garlic in the garlic tablets. That’s wrong in so many ways.
The AG demanded that all the products be pulled from the shelves of New York stores and that the retailers involved provide detailed information on the manufacture and testing of the products. Walgreens said that they were pulling all the named products from all their stores nationwide. Walmart said it would “take appropriate action” with its suppliers (since their suppliers are probably Chinese, I expect that means that they’ll ask the Chinese government to line them up against a wall and shoot them). GNC said it would “cooperate” with the state of New York “in all appropriate ways” but that they thought the AG was a liar. Target “did not respond to requests for comment”, most likely because by then their lawyers were curled up on the office floor in the fetal position. Responses to the AG’s actions are due by March 13th (after which time I’ll probably take this subject up again).
GNC came out fighting, as I have said, and other spokespeople of various types said that they felt that the AG’s actions were premature at best. They assert that DNA bar coding is a fairly new procedure and is not part of the standardized testing used in the manufacture of herbal supplements, that normal manufacture of herbs may corrupt the DNA and that many of the substances found are normal fillers used in herbal tablets and capsules. One widely quoted scientist stated that the complete absence of DNA in many of the products plus the abundance of contaminating substances were hard to explain away as faults in the manufacturing process, but that there must be something wrong with the testing results just because they were so terrible. This is an argument with a level of denial akin to “that couldn’t possibly be MY daughter in that video”.
DNA barcoding is a procedure that the AG office had used previously to track down mislabeled seafood and has been used by the FDA to analyze herbal teas (many of which also have been found in the past to contain unlisted ingredients). For all you non-scientists out there, DNA is such a long convoluted molecule that it really can’t be analyzed as a whole. It has to be cut up to be analyzed, and if you are smart about doing that the resulting pieces will let you identify where it came from. In DNA barcoding, the same section of the genome in each species is broken apart. The test results show up in a sequence of little stripes that its unique to each species, hence “bar code”. That’s compared to a database that as of 2013 contained the bar codes of about 200,000 different species of plants and animals to identify the source of the DNA.
The procedure of DNA barcoding can identify the presence or absence of an ingredient but not its amount. It won’t recognize anything that isn’t DNA. And if the DNA in the sample has been damaged in some way, it won’t be able to identify it. But despite these limitations, the critics of the AG’s office here really are standing on shaky ground. All of the products sold were supposed to be plants and some type of plant material was almost always identified, so although the process may not be perfect it was clearly working. Many of the substances found were properly identified as common filler materials that were not listed on the labels. Substances that are known common allergens were not listed on the labels either. I don’t think you can slice this in any way that makes the companies involved look other than very, very bad.
I found this all particularly disturbing because for many years, when asked where to buy supplements, I’ve recommended either a seriously pricey high-end private producer like Shaklee or Pure Encapsulations, or else a big box store like Walgreens or Costco. That was because in the good old days the big cheap retailers constantly tested their products for purity and content, and because they had such high turnover that you were guaranteed to be buying a fresh product. Hah.
The “quality and safety”, as the experts like to say, of herbal supplements is often considered to be a bit dubious because they aren’t regulated the same way that prescription medications, or even foods, are. Their regulator, the FDA, states that products are supposed to be safe and accurately labeled, their manufacturers and sellers promise that they are, and that’s about it. These products obviously did not meet those rules. That doesn’t mean that we need new rules. That wasn’t the failure here, and I’m sorry to see that herb-haters are jumping on this as an opportunity to try to make herbs more subject to unnecessary regulation and thus more unavailable. We'll be fine if the standards that we have in place are just enforced.
Interestingly, in Europe herbs and vitamin supplements do have to meet the same manufacturing and purity standards as prescription medications, and sometimes they are even sold only by prescription. That makes them more expensive and harder to get than they are here. But Europeans have been saying for years that for this reason not only are their products safer than ours but more effective. Clinical studies of herbs and supplements in Europe often show benefits that are not duplicated by similar studies in the U.S., and this may be the reason -- people here aren't getting what we are paying for.
So after all that, what to do? I’m going to fudge here a bit and say I want to wait until all the evidence is in before forming a final opinion. But in the meantime, you’ll be getting what you’re paying for and nothing else if you follow the excellent advice of Consumer Reports. Which is:
“... if you do opt for a supplement, look for one with the "USP Verified" mark on the label, which indicates that the manufacturer has voluntarily asked U.S. Pharmacopeia, a nonprofit, private standard-setting authority, to verify the quality, purity and potency of its raw ingredients or finished products.” In other words, a reputable third party has checked and confirmed that you're getting what you're paying for and nothing else.
For the moment, then, ‘nuff said.
--dr. diane holmes
Copyright © 2015