Health products expected to be of the highest quality — those sold in America’s top drugstore and retail giants — are actually often worthless and sometimes harmful, according to a cease and desist letter sent to GNC, Target, Walgreens and WalMart by the New York State attorney general’s office after authorities tested the stores herbal supplements.
Responding to an article about widespread labeling fraud published by the New York Times two years ago, the attorney general’s office began an investigation, using data partially from the University of Guelph in Canada, and found that up to one-third of the herbal supplements on the most trusted stores’ shelves contained only cheap fillers — rice, common vegetables and houseplants — instead of ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort, and valerian root.
Some medicines which were specifically labelled as not containing wheat had significant proportions of wheat in addition to having none of the advertised herbal medicines. Others contained unlisted legumes, posing a possible risk to those allergic to peanuts and soybeans.
Overall, four out of five tested products did not contain any of the herbal ingredients on their labels.
“Mislabeling, contamination and false advertising are illegal,” Eric T. Schneiderman, the state attorney general, said. “They also pose unacceptable risks to New York families — especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients.”
The cease and desist letter sent to the four retailers also demanded information on how the stores verify the ingredients in their supplements.
The state’s investigation into top stores is thought to have dispelled long-held arguments that mislabeling problems were caused by only a small percentage of companies on the fringe of the herbal supplement industry.
“If this data is accurate, then it is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry,” commented Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and an expert on supplement safety. “We’re talking about products at mainstream retailers like Walmart and Walgreens that are expected to be the absolute highest quality.”
By Andy Stern