An investigation by the New York Attorney General's office has charged widespread labeling abuse in the supplements market. Quoting the NYTimes Well blog on the subject: "The authorities said they had conducted tests on top-selling store brands of herbal supplements at four national retailers ? GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart ? and found that four out of five of the products did not contain any of the herbs on their labels." (emphasis mine).
Rather, they were composed of rice powder, soy protein, occasional legumes (e.g., peanuts, which are associated with some serious food allergies), and "weeds." You may as well just eat dirt, the contents of which might at least improve your microbiome. Those retailers have been ordered to stop selling the adulterated products, listed here.
GNC, the only specialty seller tested, had sales of $2.6B alone in a global market for nutritional supplements expected to top $60B by 2021. The industry is fueled by factors like aging Boomers* seeking to maintain function, perceived gaps in industrial food diets, high drug prices and claims of effectiveness against maladies as diverse as depression (St. John's wort) and the common cold (echinachea).
Well-compensated industry apologists have leapt to the defense, predictably offering the following hardy perennial arguments, for the confusion of the credulous:
o "a few bad apples" among industry mainstays (but 4-out-of-five is, ahem, more than a few, and anyway bad apples were not among the adulterations found by the study).
o "DNA bar code tests may have been flawed because herbal DNA may have been destroyed in processing" (but somehow the DNA of all those filler ingredients escaped unscathed?).
o "it wasn't the retailers ? it was the manufacturers, many of them furriners, who are at-fault" (thank you, Kathie Lee Gifford and every other seller who failed to audit their supply chain. Did you Ever wonder about those great prices you were offered?).
Pretty lame. You might reasonably ask: how does an industry so intimately associated with health effects commit fraud so widespread and evade scrutiny of its products, for so long?
How, indeed: there's a lesson here. Continuing with the Times exposee:
"The F.D.A. requires that companies verify that every supplement they manufacture is safe and accurately labeled. But the system essentially operates on the honor code. Under a 1994 federal law, supplements are exempt from the F.D.A.'s strict approval process for prescription drugs, which requires reviews of a product's safety and effectiveness before it goes to market."
"The law's sponsor and chief architect, Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, is a steadfast supporter of supplements. He has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the industry and repeatedly intervened in Washington to quash proposed legislation that would toughen the rules."
"Mr. Hatch led a successful fight against a proposed amendment in 2012 that would have required supplement makers to register their products with the F.D.A. and provide details about their ingredients. Speaking on the floor of the Senate at the time, Mr. Hatch said the amendment was based on 'a misguided presumption that the current regulatory framework for dietary supplements is flawed.'"
'Misguided,' is it? Well, try a heapin' helpin' of that study, Senator. C'mon -- down the old, uh, hatch.
Lest we need yet another reminder, government is not always, or often, the enemy ? it has a proper regulatory role to play in counteracting the baser instincts of the commercial class. This is especially true for products sold to vulnerable users for purposes of their health (the single most fundamental reason to buy anything), and for which adulteration would be difficult for a lay person to detect. The Market is a very dull, tardy tool of consumer protection.
So, the next time you reach for that supplement bottle on a retailer's shelf, remember your one-in-five chance. Ask yourself something like the Dirty Harry question: 'do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya?
* who, me? Why yes, I Do take an aspirin, some fish oil for omega 3s, and fiber tabs to encourage digestion lower in the gut. Let's just say I'm confident that the latter two are, indeed, as represented on their labels.