A new study from the University of Guelph in Canada finds that many herbal supplements are diluted or replaced with fillers, such as wheat and rice, that aren’t listed on their labels. Using a technique called DNA barcoding, researchers discovered that many products were misleadingly labeled. Critics of the multibillion-dollar-a-year supplement industry say it is defrauding consumers and that FDA regulation is inadequate. Industry groups claim the study is flawed. We discuss the findings and what they mean for consumers.

Study Raises Questions About Herbal Supplements 7 November,2013forum

Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council
Candy Tsourounis, professor of clinical pharmacy at UCSF School of Pharmacy
Dr. Daniel Fabricant, director of dietary supplement at the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
David Baker M.D., professor, Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Medicine, Stony Brook Medicine

  • knowit

    It’s funny how often these studies, which are entirely appropriate, are done by entities that are either outside of the USA entirely, or outside of American academia. Within the USA the long arm of corporate money and intimidation seems to dampen much that should be done to protect the public.

  • Bob Fry

    “defrauding consumers”…I’m shocked, SHOCKED I tell you! Would Arnold Schwarzenegger peddle something that’s a fraud??

  • Mark T. Burger

    Dr. Tsourounis: Please share with the listeners the record of harm/adverse reactions/ hospital admissions/deaths associated with herbal/vitamin/supplement/nutritional products. Please compare and contrast this record with the drugs made by Pharma, given to patients at UCSD and prescribed to patients upon discharge. Thank you.
    Dr. Mark Burger, PharmD

    • pascale68

      The problem is that supplements are not tracked in the same way that drugs are. Therefore, there could be many adverse reactions but because there is no method of gathering this data we cannot know how many.

      Yes, there are issues with adverse reactions of actual drugs also. But until we have the same method of collecting data on drugs and supplements, there is no way to compare.

      • Mark T. Burger

        That is false: ADRs with supplements must be reported. That’s fact.
        Secondly, the ADR reporting system for drugs is woefully inadequate. I know, I tried to straighten in out 38 years ago and it hasn’t changed since then. It’s a false sense of security. Look at the aftermarket data on drugs.

        • Felicity Dashwood

          Like Vioxx. The FDA estimated that Vioxx caused between 90-140k heart attacks.

  • caffreycmc

    I use many supplements. Some are to avoid use of painkillers that tear up my stomach or which are opiates. At least one is used by many for ADD. Some are for diabetes. I prefer to avoid rx’s when possible because I don’t believe they are always dosed correctly, any more than supplements. And there are too many side effects. I educate myself as deeply as possible. I feel that much herbal research is inadequate (e.g. only using part of the plant or not using wide enough range of dosages). In general, I am VERY concerned that changes in laws will make it impossible for me to afford these supplements – a likely consequence if much more severe testing is required. I suffer from chronic pain and there is nothing now on the market besides herbal remedies which seem to help me without large side effects.

    I am also totally suspicious that the pressure to blacken supplements is supported and paid for by the industries that might make lots of money out of higher prices if testing is required. It is my understanding that drug companies cannot not patent herbal remedies or herbal contents and that they are desperate to find ways around this.

    This is wordy. I feel strongly.

  • William – SF

    Why is it so hard to determine if the content of supplements is what they claim? Oh, right, they are self-policed, which is great if one can trust that. So, supplement providers, either have tests performed by independent labs or the FDA should/will enforce/regulate.

    … and then maybe one day we can get to the efficacy issue …

    • cuvtixo

      One the other hand, many of us don’t trust the FDA. Drugs like Vioxx get approval. SSRI’s like Prozac apparently cause suicidality in teens, but this went undiscovered by the FDA for years. I like your idea about independant labs, but I question whether the FDA is really does effective policing

      • William – SF

        Although the FDA is susceptible to bias and influence, who does one trust? Seems to me we all need to expect the best from our government and commit to providing them the best resources to make it so.

        Trust, trust, trust, yeah … who?
        Pick one.
        And then pay for it.

  • anita

    I have made my own tinctures and have ALWAYS felt skeptical about what was available in those hundreds of bottles in the stores. The mass public DO NOT KNOW what they are buying. They just buy these items because they see the hype and think it is going to be an easy fix for their ailments.

  • geraldfnord

    I think entirely appropriate both to allow competent adults to put into their bodies whatever substances they will, and for the State to act to prevent all-too-easy fraud by establishing what those substances are and sanctioning persons and firms that lie about their products…and to fund unbiased research that establishes what they do to humans.

  • Paul Saunders

    I would like to comment that the fundamental problem with using botanicals is that even if what is on the label is present, there is no guarantee of therapeutic efficacy. Have used wonderfully effective extracts in China but never been able to get same preparation in the USA.

    It comes down to the fundamental problem that plant extracts are variable in their active principles. As with digitalis leaf a century ago, the only way to qualify the efficacy of botanicals is bioassays. The food supplement law is a dodge to get around having to do all the hard work that drug companies need to do to bring a pharmaceutical to the market.

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    The show didnt explain how Orrin Hatch, the Senator from Utah was behind DSHEA, took out all protections from testing. In 1989, a batch of the amino acid L-tryptophan, touted as a remedy for sleeping problems, anxiety, and PMS, caused 1,500 cases of a connective-tissue disorder. Thirty-eight people died.

    The incident prompted the FDA to scrutinize the industry, and two years later, an FDA task force recommended halting over-the-counter sales of such amino acids as L-tryptophan and other supplements with therapeutic qualities. The task force also recommended limiting the dosages of vitamins and minerals, many of which are toxic in high doses. (Sixteen children died in 1991 from iron-supplement poisoning.) And the FDA asked Congress for the power to pre-approve any health claims made by manufacturers before they could market a product, and to increase the fines and penalties for violating the laws.

    Not surprisingly, the supplement industry went nuts and called upon its clean-living friend to help fight back. Hatch was happy to oblige. In 1992, he passed a one-year moratorium on new supplement regulations. Meanwhile, the industry enlisted Hollywood and Christian broadcasters in a successful campaign to convince consumers that the government wanted to take their vitamins away.

    With enormous public support, in 1993, Hatch introduced DSHEA and pushed the act through the Labor and Human Resources Committee on a 12-5 vote, overruling objections from his friend from Massachusetts, Edward Kennedy. Railing against the FDA from the Senate floor, Hatch declared that the agency had “repeatedly attempted to impose unnecessarily stringent standards that would leave many if not most supplement companies with no practical choice but to close their doors.”

    In defending DSHEA, Hatch reasoned that foods such as raw beef, seafood, and even peanut butter can be potentially dangerous, but that their risks are presumed small enough, and the consumer smart enough, that the government allows their sale unfettered. Supplements, Hatch argued, are no different.

    Read the article here. Nothing has changed – the consumer is a chicken waiting to be plucked. We consumers have no assurance that anything is what it says it is.


  • Fay Nissenbaum

    Anyone who wants to (and should want to) research further, search for DSHEA and supplements. Plenty to learn. It is bizarre to me how defensive people are about their supplements. To me, it’s a matter of we should get what we pay for.

    In 1989, the California Health Department tested more than 250 herbal products from retail stores in the state and found that 32 percent were adulterated with undeclared pharmaceuticals and/or heavy metals. You dont have to go to Canada to learn that this problem has been discussed before with testing to support that the supplement industry is one of fraud and false promises. I would like to hear from ONE company that can prove what’s in what they sell!

    • cuvtixo

      According to the statistic you cite, 68% of supplements examined are NOT adulterated nor contain heavy metals. Painting an entire industry as you do with such a broad brush is not really helpful.

  • pearlcor

    Pharmaceutical grade supplements and herbal compounds from reputable companies will solve 99% of this issue, and they cost more. Individuals must do their research on each product and company. Taking care of one’s health is not a boom boom bing thing and just grab a bottle of cure all somewhere. I have been using supplements since 1981 and have learned it can be an arduous, such is life.

  • Irene

    From the perspective of food allergies, it’s very alarming that herbal supplement companies feel it is okay not to be forthcoming with information on their products. Don’t herbal supplements fall into the same category as vitamins and dietary supplements? If so, shouldn’t they fall under the regulations of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA 2004) that require food products to label for the most common 8 food allergens? Or does DSHEA exempt some supplements from FDA monitoring.

  • Lynn Gutcher Pell

    No doubt there are products that are not scrutinized. However, supplements prescribed by professionals, such as Osteopaths, Naturopaths or Herbalist must know the suppliers and their standards. Consumers beware indeed. Not all products are ‘certified’ as organic & the ‘quality standards’ or care of the herbs can be in question. It is also know that some companies will substitute one herb for another. Thanks, one concerned Herbalist. LCP

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