Feb 11, 2015 7:00 AM

Author: Office of Public Affairs

If you buy herbal supplements at GNC, Target, Walgreens or Walmart, you may not be getting what you paid for. 

Last week, the New York attorney general’s office accused the four major retailers of selling fraudulent supplements and demanded that they remove the products from their shelves.

Investigators purchased supplements from the four retailers and conducted DNA tests on them. The supplements included echinacea, ginseng, St. John’s wort, ginkgo biloba, saw palmetto and others. They found that only one out of five supplements tested contained the herbs listed on the label. Instead, they contained fillers like powdered rice, beans and houseplants. 

Some supplements contained unlabeled ingredients that are harmful to certain individuals. Wheat, for instance, was found in some pills, despite labels claiming they were wheat-free and gluten-free. Others tested positive for powdered legumes, which can be harmful to people with nut allergies.

Thunder Jalili, PhD, a nutritionist at the University of Utah, says, “I’m not that surprised by the findings as supplement companies are exempt from FDA review.” Consumers have to count on manufacturers to act responsibly, he says.

Jalili notes that true herbal compounds can play an important role for people with certain health conditions. “For instance, sufferers of hypertension benefit from taking grape seed extract,” he says. 

Unfortunately, there is little you can do to protect yourself. If you buy supplements, seek out reputable brands, Jalili says.

For an otherwise healthy person, supplements are not necessary, Jalili says. Instead, people should increase their intake of plant-based foods to potentially lower the risk for certain cancers and heart disease.

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