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The Danger of Supplements

Public health officials have long been skeptical of the advertised health benefits of herbal supplements, a class of products largely unregulated by the FDA. These suspicions were confirmed in a recent investigation by the New York attorney general’s office into supplements sold by Target, Walgreens, Walmart, and GNC.

No longer can the supplement industry point fingers at fringe companies selling their products in small, non-franchise stores. The attorney general’s investigation looked into the top selling store brands at some of the country’s major retailers, and found that many of these products do not contain the key ingredients advertised on their labels. Worse yet, a number of the supplements contain known allergens, but their labels do not include the appropriate warnings.

Of the six Walmart supplements that were tested, not one contained the ingredient on its label. Meanwhile, the GNC products were found to contain legumes that they did not list as ingredients, a hazard to consumers with nut and soybean allergies.

The danger posed by supplements is not purely theoretical. In 2013, a tainted supplement was linked to a rash of hepatitis cases affecting 72 people and killing at least one.

How can supplements go unregulated while prescription drugs undergo a strict testing process? A 1994 law sponsored by Senator Orrin G. Hatch made herbal supplements exempt from the FDA’s oversight. Unsurprisingly, Senator Hatch has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from the supplement industry.

Hopefully, this recent investigation will help bring supplements back under the watch of the FDA. All four retailers tested, as well supplement manufacturers in Long Island, Utah and California have now received cease and desist letters from the attorney general, stating, “Contamination, substitution and falsely labeling herbal products constitute deceptive business practices and, more importantly, present considerable health risks for consumers.”

Until supplements come under stricter regulation, it is important to remember that by taking herbal supplements you run the risk of consuming unreported and potentially dangerous ingredients.

Sources: Kaplan, Sarah, “GNC, Target, Wal-Mart, Walgreens accused of selling adulterated ‘herbals’,” The Washington Post, 3 February 2015.

O’Connor, Anahad, “New York Attorney General Targets Supplements at Major Retailers,” The New York Times, 3 February 2015.

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