Are You Getting What You Pay for With Your Dietary Supplements?


When you purchase dietary supplements, you expect them to be of the highest quality, especially for the price you pay. Recently, the New York State Attorney General’s office demanded that four major retailers remove their herbal supplements from their shelves for selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous products.

The retailers were GNC, Target, Walmart, and Walgreen. The authorities found that four out of five products contained cheap fillers.

Health experts are pleasantly surprised with the Attorney General’s demand, as they have been complaining about the quality and safety of the supplements for some time. Law enforcement agencies for the first time have threatened legal action against big drug and retail stores that are deliberately selling misleadingly labeled herbal products.

“Mislabeling, contamination, and false advertising are illegal,” said Eric T. Schneiderman, the state Attorney General. “They also pose unacceptable risks to New York families, especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients.”

If this data is accurate, then it is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry,

said 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.”

Some of the Attorney General’s findings

  • Ginseng pills at Walgreens only contained powdered garlic and rice;
  • Ginkgo biloba at Walmart contained powdered radish, house plants, and wheat (which the label claimed was wheat and gluten free);
  • Target had three out of six herbal products—ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort, and valerian root—test negative for the herbs on their labels. Instead, they contained powdered rice, beans, peas, and wild carrots;
  • GNC pills had unlisted ingredients used as fillers, such as powdered legumes, including peanuts and soybeans, which can be dangerous for people with allergies.

In the U.S., herbal supplements are treated as foods rather than medicines. Thus, they do not fall under the FDA’s “rigorous manufacturing and testing standards for drugs.” Because of this, it is very difficult to validate the quality of the herbal supplements you are purchasing—buyer beware.


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