New Questions About Herbal Supplement Quality

dietary supplementsWe’ve seen before that there can sometimes be real discrepancies between what a supplement label says and what it actually contains. The issue came to the fore again last week when the New York Times reported that most herbal supplements tested for the state attorney general’s office did not contain any of the herbs listed on their labels.

The tests showed that pills labeled medicinal herbs often contained little more than cheap fillers like powdered rice, asparagus and houseplants, and in some cases substances that could be dangerous to those with allergies.

The office pointed the finger at products from four major retailers in particular, as GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart were accused of “selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements.”

And here, the phrase “the high cost of ‘cheap'” comes to mind.

That said, LiveScience reports that some scientists question the results. Was the kind of testing done – a technique called DNA barcoding, which searches for a specific fragment of DNA – appropriate to the task?

The ingredients in herbal supplements are often highly processed — crushed, dissolved, filtered and dried — so that they may no longer contain the particular fragment of DNA that researchers are searching for, making the supplement appear to be mislabeled, [Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Pieter] Cohen said. But the products could still contain some biological compounds from the original plant.

Danica Harbaugh Reynaud, CEO of AuthenTechnologies, a company that does identification tests to look for the plant species found in herbal supplements and other products, agreed. “My suspicion is that inappropriate methods were used to assess these products, leading to some false-negative results,” Reynaud told Live Science. “A lack of DNA … is not necessarily indicative” of a mislabeled supplement, she said.

Damon Little, associate curator of bioinformatics at the New York Botanical Garden, said that some herbal supplements — particularly plant extracts — contain very little DNA. “In the extreme case, you more or less won’t find any DNA in that extract at all,” Little told Live Science.

Regardless, the current controversy casts light back on a critical issue: If you’re using herbal and nutritional supplements, it’s important that you opt for high quality products rather than whatever’s on sale at your local big box store or deeply discounted at Amazon.

It’s one reason why we recommend consulting with a qualified health professional about any kind of ongoing supplementation. He or she can guide you to quality products and proper dosages, as well as help ensure you won’t put yourself at risk from bad combinations of and interactions with pharmaceutical drugs or other medicaments you may be taking.

More about supplement quality:
Not All Nutritional Supplements Are Created Equal
When Label & Supplement Don’t Match

Also see Natural Medicine Journal‘s commentary on the matter, which we were alerted to only after we’d published this post.

Image by SuperFantastic, via Flickr


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