The Fake Vitamin Supplement Controversy: What Really Happened?
In February 2015, the New York State Attorney General’s office accused four major retailers – Target, GNC, Walmart, and Walgreens – of selling adulterated and potentially harmful herbal supplements.
The news broke after these national retailers were smacked with a cease-and-desist letter, which demanded that they stop selling some of their dietary supplements.
How It All Started
It all began when the New York Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, commissioned a study carried out by the Clarkson University in Potsdam. The study was carried out on store-brand herbal supplements and revealed 4 out of 5 of the supplements either didn’t match the herb listed on the label or was not what they claimed to be.
The test which was carried out on products containing varying amounts of 7 herbal supplements, also revealed that some of the products were contaminated with a high level of cheap fillers – Wild carrot, rice, wheat, beans, citrus, asparagus, pine, and houseplant – that could be potentially harmful to people with allergies.
Following the release of the test results, there have been a lot of media reactions. On one side are the anti-supplement crews, who believe supplements are unregulated, dangerous, and inadequately researched. And on the other hand, are people like us, the supplement lovers.
In this post, we explore why the action taken by the attorney general’s office is a flawed one by examining:
- The actual supplements and products tested
- The test carried out
- The flaw and inappropriateness of the test.
Let’s get started.
What Were the Actual Supplements and Products Used in the Test?
We mentioned earlier that the AGO specifically sent out warning to products that contained 7 herbal supplements; ginger, ginseng, garlic, ginkgo biloba, Echinacea, St. John’s wort and saw palmetto. You’d notice these supplements are all herbs and the very popular and readily available ones at that. The test wasn’t carried out on vitamins, minerals, or omegas but only on herbal supplements.
Now, the anti-supplement crews are trying to paint all supplements with this paintbrush when obviously, the only supplement involved were herbs.
What about the herbal products tested?
Most of the test was conducted on the types of herbal products that promoted vitality, physical endurance, male performance and memory enhancers. Basically the kind of crappy mass market products you’d see in places you get your gas.
The Test: DNA Barcoding
DNA barcoding was used to carry out the test for determining the authenticity of the herbal products. It became popular after being used for a study by researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. The test works by using ‘genetic fingerprinting’ to identify the individual ingredients contained in a product.
Let’s try to break that down.
Basically, the DNA barcoding technology uses a snippet of an organism (could be a plant or animal), then compares it to some known database to identify the species. If you’ve ever noticed how a UPC barcode scanner at the grocery store works, you can get the idea of how the test works.
Pretty incredible right?
However, there is just one problem: the DNA barcoding is absolutely the wrong test to determine what these guys were trying to find out.
How do we know this?
Many industry experts and even the hardened critics of the supplement industry agreed that, Nah, the DNA barcoding test was inadequate for analyzing the constituents of these herbal products. They affirmed that while the test was a good one, it can’t really tell if an energy booster pill really does contain ginseng or is just a mix of wheat and pine.
A great example is Dr. Pieter Cohen, a Harvard Medical School researcher and one of the most dogged detectives of supplement tampering research. He has this to say about the AG’s methodology:
“Using only DNA barcode testing is inadequate. It’s not robust and it’s going to give misleading information to the investigator. Even if DNA got in, we’d expect it to be destroyed or denatured. It’s no surprise that they didn’t find DNA of the original plant in the supplements.”
We should point out here that Dr. Cohen constitutes a much-unbiased source since he frequently rails against the supplement industry at the drop of a hat. Even him, a hardened critic agreed the result presented by the Attorney General were so extreme, he couldn’t accept it.
Why the DNA Barcoding Test Is Invalid for the Purpose of Testing Herbal Extracts
First, you should know that DNA will always be DNA, no matter where it’s been extracted – whether the stem, leaf or root.
This brings us to the issue of herbal supplement extracts depending highly on being extracted from a specific part of the plant to get the benefit required. You’d understand better if you’ve ever picked up one of those bottles of supplements and noticed some have the inscription ‘leaf’ or ‘seed’ extract on their ingredient label.
Now the issue.
DNA barcoding is great because it can tell us the exact organism a compound has been extracted and not so great for botanical products because it won’t show where the extract really come from.
Experts have agreed that, sure, the DNA barcoding has proved reliable in rooting out frauds relating to milk and fish scandals. However, it should be noted that it is only great for analyzing living or fresh organisms; it is unproven when it comes to botanical extracts. This is because a plants cytochrome Oxidase I (COI) evolves slower than the COI of other living things. And as such, DNA barcoding can’t be reliable in identifying the species required.
Another important thing to take note of is the extraction and purification process of the herbal supplements.
The extraction process can make use of a solvent (alcohol, acid, water) and/or heating procedures. So it is only natural that the DNA can become degraded and even eliminated in the process of refinement. So, it’s possible for the DNA to be absent in the final product after the purification and refinement have occurred.
You can also look at it this way: By extracting a substance, let’s say saw palmetto, only the desired molecules are taken and refined, eliminating other unnecessary elements (which include DNA) in the process. So, the only reason DNA would show up was if the ground up plant material itself, rather than the extract was used.
Seeing as an extract has been used in the AG’s test, a purified herbal extract should not contain DNA. So many of these supplements, including those that ‘failed’ the AG’s test already had their DNA separated from their extract.
You can see it’s quite ironical that saying the DNA showed up at all is the indication of a sloppy work.
Does this mean the cheap supplements sold at Walmart are okay and can be taken without any worry of adulteration?
Even though this test tells us nothing, there is a huge difference in quality among all types of supplement. And not just the herbs, take magnesium for instance. You can get magnesium oxide, – which is the really cheap one- or magnesium sulfate.
So basically, Ingredients vary in their quality and cost. Manufacturers vary in how stringent they are in testing, and how much integrity they have.
The lesson here is not to stop buying supplements. It is to buy better supplements. There are lots of reputable companies that make supplements and herbs. You could even use doctor brands which are only available to health practitioners. Or shop from reputable vitamin shops.
The point is to look a little deeper than the headlines when it comes to nutrition stories because the story is not always what it seems to be.
- Kaplan, S; GNC, Target, Wal-Mart, Walgreens accused of selling adulterated ‘herbals’ ; Washington Post; Feb 3, 2015
- Morrell, A; Did The NY AG Flub Its Testing In Herbal Supplement Smackdown? ; Forbes; March 14, 2015
- Sarma, N; DNA Testing of Herbal Supplements – Does it Work or Doesn’t It? ; United States Pharmacopeial Convention (USP); Feb 12, 2015
- Daniells, S; Expert review: ‘DNA barcoding unsuitable as a stand-alone tool for identifying & authenticating botanicals’ ; NutraIngredients –USA; July 12, 2016