Buyer Beware: GNC, Walmart and Target Under Fire For Selling Fake Supplements


The New York Attorney General has ordered GNC, WalMart, Target and Walgreens to stop selling certain store brand herbal supplements that it says don’t contain the herbal ingredient on the label, or contain only a small amount of it.

According to cease-and-desist letters sent by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, at least five dietary supplements sold at these stores have been mislabeled. Instead of St. John’s Wort, ginseng, garlic, Echinacea and saw palmetto, DNA testing revealed consumers were instead swallowing a bevy of placebos, and even allergens, including rice, wheat or dracaena — a species of tropical houseplant.

The investigation was sparked by a 2013 investigative report in the New York Times that alleged many supplements on the market were no more than powdered rice and weeds. The article quoted a Canadian university study that used DNA barcoding to reveal that many of the supplements researchers tested were of poor quality, highly diluted or even contaminated. A Department of Health and Human Services (DHH) study completed around the same time found that misleading medical claims were also frequently made by supplement manufacturers.

In the meantime, the New York Attorney General’s office has contacted the four companies’ CEOs, asking for documentation related to the sourcing of the supplements in question. Each letter reflects a disturbing trend: Only a small minority of supplement samples taken from different New York store locations revealed plant DNA matching the product label. The vast majority either revealed different plant material or no plant DNA at all, suggesting many of these products are so over-processed that any health benefits were lost during their manufacture.

The demands came in cease and desist letters addressed to company executives that were dated Monday. The New York Times first reported the letters.

The letters included statements like: “No St. John’s Wort DNA was identified.” “No plant genetic material of any sort was identified in the product labeled Echinacea.” And some contained allergens like wheat that were not properly labeled.

The tests were performed on samples of gingko biloba, St. John’s Wort, ginseng, garlic, echinacea and saw palmetto supplements bought from stores in New York. Purchases were made from several stores and samples from each bottle were tested multiple times, according to the attorney general.

The cease and desist order applies only to specific lots of the supplements. But the letters also requested information about the manufacturers and testing procedures to support its “ongoing investigation of this matter.”

That investigation is “focused on what appears to be the practice of substituting contaminants and fillers in the place of authentic product,” the attorney general’s office said.

“It is our expectation that all suppliers conduct their business and produce products that are in full compliance with the law,” WalMart spokesman Brian Nick said. “Based on this notice, we are immediately reaching out to the suppliers of these products to learn more information and will take appropriate action.”

Target said it had not yet seen the full report but “is committed to providing high quality and safe products to our guests.”

GNC disputed the accuracy of the testing process but said it would comply with the attorney general’s order to remove the products from New York shelves.

“We stand behind the quality, purity and potency of all ingredients listed on the labels of our private label products,” said Laura Brophy, a spokeswoman for GNC. “GNC tests all of its products using validated and widely used testing methods.”

Walgreens said it is removing the products from its shelves and takes the matter “very seriously.”

Regulators have long cast a skeptical eye towards herbal supplements, questioning the benefits they promise, but they’re subject to much less scrutiny than prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

Of the “Herbal Plus” brand supplements purchased and analyzed, only the Garlic supplement consistently turned up as containing what was advertised. One bottle of Saw Palmetto tested positive for containing DNA from the saw palmetto plant, while three others did not. The remaining four supplement types yielded mixed results, but none revealed DNA from the labeled herb, according to Schneiderman. In all, DNA results matched the labels only 22% of the time.

The retailer’s “Up & Up” fared the best of the four retailers, with DNA tests confirming 41% of the labels, but that still means that over half the products tested failed to contain what was advertised. The most consistent supplements were Garlic and Saw Palmetto. Echinacea was also somewhat consistent, says Schneiderman, though one sample apparently turned up rice DNA.

Subpar results here, with tests finding that only 18% of the tested Walgreens’ “Finest Nutrition” brand supplements lived up to their labels. Once again, Saw Palmetto was the most consistently accurate label, while Schneiderman says the others generally failed to show DNA of the advertised plant matter.

Which brings us to the worst-performing of the store-brand supplements. As mentioned above, only 4% of the tested “Spring Valley” brand herbal supplements showed DNA of the advertised herbs. None were consistently accurate, says Schneiderman, though tests showed some garlic in one Garlic supplement sample, and some saw palmetto in one Saw Palmetto sample.

Unlike medications, which are heavily scrutinized by the FDA, herbal supplements are not subject to a rigorous evaluation process. But you still can’t advertise that you’re selling one thing and sell consumers something completely different. That’s why Schneiderman’s office is looking at potential violations of New York’s General Business Law and Executive Law.


via New York Times