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Dietary Supplements: Does the Bottle Contain What the Label Says?

Do store brands of dietary supplements contain the ingredients the labels claim?, asked scientists from The New York attorney general’s office. In analysis of supplements from Walmart, Target, GNC, and Walgreens, they found that only 21% of the supplements did contain the ingredients listed and that “most” contained ingredients not included on the label. The resulting response has included furor over the attorney general’s testing methods as well as people claiming that these results support what they knew all along. Amid all the outrage, some interesting points have caught my eye. Here’s what I found most interesting:

How Not to Test a Dietary Supplement in The New Yorker examines whether DNA barcode testing is an accurate way to assess the ingredients of supplements. (Tammy Rome, an herbalist and writer for Migraine.com, argues that it is not.)

Your Vitamins May Be Lying to You: Why Big Herba is Out of Control, in Salon, carries important information far beyond the sensational headline: “The very same mega-companies with gigantic chemical labs that make drugs are cooking up vitamin and herbal supplements labeled with sunny terms like ‘natural’ and ‘wholesome.’ Pfizer, Unilever, Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline and other big pharmaceutical firms make or sell supplements. Procter & Gamble Co. and Arm & Hammer are also in on the action. Wall Street is getting in on the game, too: the Carlyle Group, a private-equity titan, owns NBTY (formerly Nature’s Bounty), whose brands include Nature’s Bounty, Sundown Naturals, Puritan’s Pride, and Vitamin World.”

People take herbs and supplements for a variety of reasons, only one of which is distrust of the pharmaceutical industry. Still, if that’s important to you, then you’ll want to do careful research to find out if you’re supporting Big Pharma when purchasing supplements. Other people will seek out supplements sold by pharmaceutical companies, assuming that they have more rigorous scientific and safety standards than smaller, less known companies.

In Be Careful Where You Buy Your Herbal Products!, headache specialist Alexander Mauskop, M.D., discusses the supplements he recommends and says that his preferred brand is Nature’s Way.

As so often happens, I’m left with no answers, just more questions. First, what about non-store brands? Does Nature’s Way, for example, contain the DNA of the listed ingredients? If so, it supports the idea that store brands could be lacking, though even that raises additional questions. If not, we’re still left to wonder if the testing methods were inaccurate or if all supplements or bogus or something in between. Also, if the pharmaceutical industry plays a large role in the supplement industry, does that make supplements more or less reliable, or does it make no difference? From my reading today, it appears that how you answer that question depends on your beliefs about Big Pharma. Finally, does this even matter? Will it change consumers’ purchasing behaviors? Will it just increase the divide between those who think supplements are the best and those who believe they’re hogwash? Will people become even more invested in their existing opinions, as studies have found happens when people who are anti-vaccination are shown pictures of children with the disease they aren’t vaccinating for?

What’s your reaction to the news? Will it change the way you think about supplements or where you buy them?

6 Responses to Dietary Supplements: Does the Bottle Contain What the Label Says?

  1. tortoisegirl says:

    The lack of FDA oversight (verification that you are getting what the bottle says is in there) is one of the reasons I am hesitant to take supplements. Also, supplement-supplement and medication-supplement interactions are more unknown than medication-medication interactions. Supplement companies aren’t required to do as much testing as pharmaceutical companies. Although the FDA now has a means to report adverse reactions from supplements, it doesn’t appear to be as extensive as the pharmaceutical one. So, this new info confirms my beliefs on some of the risks of supplements.

    Here is some info from the FDA on dietary supplements: http://www.fda.gov/Food/DietarySupplements/UsingDietarySupplements/ucm110567.htm

    So, I’ve kept my supplementation to a minimum. I’ve tried a handful of them, but only the more widely studied (such as Magnesium, D, and B12), have stuck to the major brands, and only when recommended by my doctor (and when they have a dosage to recommend; what is the appropriate dose can often be in question). Vitamin D is the only one I’ve stuck with long term, and only as I have a verified deficiency. With others there was no noticeable pain difference so I didn’t continue them. Best wishes.

    • Tortoisegirl, thanks for sharing your perspective. A lot of people trust supplements because they aren’t pharmaceuticals, but I’m also wary of the lack of oversight.

      Take care,
      Kerrie

  2. Parin Stormlaughter says:

    I’m an herbalist now although not in practice. The NY Attorney General should be ashamed of itself.

    Unless a bottle says that it contains whole plant parts, I would not expect it to contain any plant DNA.

    When making an extract into a capsule, the extract is sprayed over a base material as rice powder or cellulose, dried quickly, powdered again possibly, then encapsulated. Plant extracts are unlikely to contain plant DNA.

    Herbalists aren’t after plant DNA when making an extract. We’re after sesquertirpenes, polysaccharides, alkaloids, saponins, and other ingredients which are soluble components of plant material. They contain no DNA.

    Alcohol, a common solvent for making plant extracts, destroys plant DNA. If any bottled labeled as [plant name] extract actually did test as having that plant’s DNA, that would be a clear example of poor laboratory technique and possible contamination.

    Best to get advice from an herbalist or do good research yourself. Why not learn to make medicine? I did and I’m healthier for it.

  3. Ralee says:

    Without supplements my migraines where constant. I buy only very trusted sources of supplements that are more expensive but worth the trust. I cannOT trust the FDA as it is so them having oversight would not make things any better. There is a new herbalist project that I funded on kickstarter that I think might help shed some light on this crazy industry. I would trust them if they were starting to put a label on herbs. I hate that too many consumers aren’t getting what they paid for with herbs but people just really need to do research and spend their dollars accordingly. Either way, keep the FDA out of it. They do more harm than good in most of their dealings- it will become a matter of which giant company has more money to throw at them to get what they need.

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