A Surprising Lack of Regulation for Herbal Supplements

By Chuck Norris

April 10, 2015 6 min read

In the latest volley in the unfolding story exposing the sale by some major retailers of fraudulently labeled and potentially dangerous herbal supplements, 14 state attorneys general joined together in asking Congress to investigate the supplements industry and to consider giving the Food and Drug Administration more oversight of herbal supplements.

Some may recall the similar, though much less noted, situation I reported on last year of a supplement recall based on a study published by The Journal of the American Medical Association. In this study, 27 products promising big muscles, sexual prowess, weight loss and more were tested. Of those, 18 contained ingredients not approved for over-the-counter use. Among the unlisted ingredients researchers found were hidden steroids, similar ingredients to Viagra and Prozac, and a weight-loss drug linked with heart attacks. It was noted that even though these products had been subjects of safety recalls, they still could be available online years after those actions.

Unlike prescription drugs, dietary supplements don't need FDA approval before they are marketed. Still, their labels must list all ingredients. Manufacturers are not allowed to sell products that are adulterated or misbranded or subject to a recall action.

When the New York attorney general's office in February accused four major retailers of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements and demanded that they be removed from their shelves, it constituted a game-changing action. It marked the first time that a law enforcement agency had threatened the biggest retail and drugstore chains with legal action for selling what it said were deliberately misleading herbal products.

It also exposed a major flaw in current consumer protection practices when it comes to supplements. Under federal law, a prescription drug requires extensive review of the product's safety and effectiveness before it goes to market. Not so with supplements, for which companies need to merely verify that their products are safe and accurately labeled. Under current law, supplements are assumed to be safe until the authorities can prove otherwise.

So consumers become the litmus test for a product's harm — meaning that if consumers do not become sick, it's unlikely a product will be exposed for what it is not.

And this is what frosts me the most about this current situation. In a greatly needed emerging industry founded on providing a natural pathway back to restorative health and away from the habits and foods that make us sick, charlatans and snake oil salesmen have been allowed to pollute this enterprise and prey upon us unencumbered.

Until now.

Among New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's findings were products labeled as ginkgo — which has memory-enhancing properties — that actually contained little more than powdered radish, houseplants and wheat, though some labels also pronounced the products as being gluten-free. Some bottles of "St. Johnswort" and "valerian root" tested negative for the herbs on their labels. What they did contain, however — even though they were unlisted — were powdered rice, beans, peas and wild carrots.

What Schneiderman's findings confirmed is that this small corner of the food industry, where consumer demand provides an opportunity for well-intentioned entrepreneurs to make a living by providing the public with natural products, is being diminished by morally bankrupt profiteers — and manufacturers trying to do well through an intention to do some good are being undercut by those merely out to make a buck.

Said Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and an expert on supplement safety, upon hearing of Schneiderman's findings: "If this data is accurate, then it is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry. We're talking about products at mainstream retailers like Wal-Mart and Walgreens that are expected to be the absolute highest quality."

This past week, one of the retailers named, GNC, reached an agreement with Schneiderman to adopt more stringent testing standards than the FDA requires. It remains to be seen what other voluntary or regulatory actions will follow.

Because these products are virtually unregulated, look for a quality seal or certification from a trusted third-party entity, such as the United States Pharmacopeia, or USP, NSF International or ConsumerLab.com. Such products have undergone rigorous testing to make sure their ingredients meet quality standards.

Also, familiarize yourself in advance with the percentage of the supplement's key compound established by the medical community as the accepted strength. Look for it on the bottle.

If nothing else, Schneiderman's action against leading retailers should serve as a wake-up call for the medical community and family doctors, whom we look to for advice. A study in 2007 found that a third of doctors didn't know that dietary supplements aren't subject to FDA approval or safety testing.

Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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