What’s In Your Herbal Supplements? 

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Herbal supplements sold at GNC, Walgreens, Walmart, and Target may not actually contain the botanicals listed on the labels. The New York State attorney general's office has asked these four mega-chains to pull several of their store-brand herbal supplements off the shelves, alleging that they are phony or even hazardous.

Authorities analyzed multiple bottles of six popular herbal products from each store, including St. John's wort, ginseng, gingko biloba, and echinacea. Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, herbal supplements do not need Food and Drug Administration approval before going to market — which is why these products are being scrutinized now.

Using a method called DNA barcoding, the researchers concluded that 79 percent of the products tested did not contain the herbs listed on the bottle. Walmart's brand of supplements fared the worst, with only 4 percent of its products actually containing the expected DNA barcodes. Additionally, in 35 percent of products tested, they found DNA barcodes from plant species not disclosed on the label, such as rice, wheat, wild carrot, and even house plants. Some of these, the attorney general fears, could pose allergy concerns.


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Without question, these findings are eye-opening. However, many herbal experts say it is way too soon for alarm, and that the authorities are being fed incomplete information. Experts have widely criticized DNA barcoding, a relatively new method, calling it inaccurate and insufficient for testing finished supplement products. They point out that that after a botanical ingredient has been extracted, subjected to heat, or exposed to a number of common manufacturing processes, this test is often unable to determine that plant's identity — and has been shown to give false positives. 

Regardless of the accuracy of the DNA barcode tests, it's no shocker that herbal supplements sold at big-box stores, chain drugstores, and even GNC aren't top quality. These are often made very cheaply and with cheap ingredients. 

Medicinal herbs vary vastly in quality, potency, and effectiveness, depending on specific strains, growing conditions, and various other factors. Supplement companies that are committed to providing effective products will pay a premium for the highest grade herbs. In other words, you get what you pay for. That's why brands like MegaFood, New Chapter, Traditional Medicinals, and Garden of Life usually cost significantly more than the stuff sold at discount retailers. These reputable companies are also very transparent about their ingredients, where they're sourced, and how they're processed. Meanwhile, the inexpensive supplement brands will often choose cheaper, less potent herbs in order to keep their production costs down. Or, perhaps, if these new findings are substantiated, they'll use none of the correct herbs at all.

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