The NY State Attorney General is doubling down on his efforts to put supplement manufacturers out of business. In case you missed it, here’s what happened.
In early February, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman accused four major retailers—Walmart, GNC, Target and Walgreens—of selling fraudulent and “potentially dangerous” supplements, and demanded the retailers immediately remove the offending products from their shelves. Schneiderman’s office said that tests it conducted on top-selling store brands found that four out of five products didn’t contain what they said they did. (More on those “tests” in just a moment.)
Then, Schneiderman decided to expand his investigation into the supplement industry, and announced the formation of a multistate “coalition” designed to further investigate supplements. He’s hoping for increased FDA inspections, more monitoring and inspections, and even more involvement of the FTC.
Awesome. After all, vitamins are dangerous, unregulated, unsupervised and deadly, right? It’s about time someone stood up to those avaricious supplement companies!
OK, calm down everyone.
First of all, let’s all agree that we want be able to totally trust that if a supplement we buy in Whole Foods says “600 mg of vitamin C”, it definitely contains 600 mg of vitamin C. So let’s be clear that we’re all on the same page where label accuracy is concerned.
Second of all: in no way should this article be read as a defense of every second-rate product sold at every big box store in America. There’s a lot of junky products, a lot of deceptive marketing, and a lot of marketing BS masquerading as “science” in the supplement world. I, like most responsible people in the industry, would love nothing more than to see the bottom feeders driven out of business—not necessarily by stricter regulations, but rather by the refusal of educated consumers to buy their junk.
But that said, let’s keep this in perspective. By all accounts, the average number of people who die every year from prescription medicines correctly taken is 106,000 (1). (Let me repeat that lest you miss the qualifier. We’re not talking recreational or illegal use—we’re talking medicines legally obtained and taken as prescribed—106,000 deaths per year.)
Number of people per year who die from vitamin supplement “overdoses”? Well, according to the US National Poison Data System’s annual report from 2010, which is the most recent data we have, the number of deaths caused by vitamin and mineral supplements that year was….. let’s see, now….that would be….. zero (2).
So the gnashing and gnawing over these “dangerous” supplements seems a little disingenuous, particularly when we’re not hearing anyone call for a multi-state investigation of the safety of pharmaceutical drugs. It’s a little like ignoring a murder spree while focusing on jaywalking.
But, putting aside all political considerations, what about the findings? Shouldn’t we be concerned if in fact scientific tests are showing that our supplements don’t contain what they say they do?
Well, yes. We should. If, in fact that’s what the tests are showing.
The problem is, the tests showed no such thing.
The test used by the attorney general’s office was something called DNA barcoding. There’s only one thing wrong with this test—it’s absolutely useless for determining the amount of an herb found in an herbal supplement. In fact, even the most virulent, outspoken critics of the supplement industry say it’s a lousy test. If the supplement industry’s most passionate enemies—folks would love nothing more than to put the whole industry out of business—if even they are crying “foul,” then you know something fishy’s going on.
Here’s an example. There’s a guy named Peter Cohen who’s a professor at Harvard Medical School. (Go look him up online—I’ll wait.) Cohen is an outspoken critic of the industry who wrote a scathing anti-supplement blast last year in the New England Journal of Medicine (“Hazards of Hindsight—Monitoring the Safety of Nutritional Supplements”), excoriating the FDA for not being more aggressive in monitoring “potentially dangerous supplements”. So you’d expect a guy like Cohen to be jumping for joy at the latest investigation, right?
Want to know what Cohen said about the DNA barcoding test? “DNA barcoding may not be the right way to look for herbs in supplements”, he said in an interview (3). (And you know it must’ve killed the guy to have to admit that.)
The reason DNA barcoding is the wrong test to use is that you can be looking at a high-quality herbal extract and the extract—since it is not the plant itself—will have none of the DNA of the plant. But the product will still be perfectly kosher.
An illustration of how important it is to use the right test was seen just recently in the famous Marvin Gaye- Robin Thicke copyright infringement case. As you may have heard, a jury recently awarded the Marvin Gaye estate a whopping $7.2 million in damages and royalties after they ruled that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams infringed on the copyright from Mr. Gaye’s classic song “Got to Give it Up”. They based their decision on looking at the sheet music.
But musicians haven’t written songs on sheet music in a very long time. Sheet music is a relic of a bygone era in music, and in no way conveys any of the modern, technological bells and whistles that define today’s pop music. Today’s songs—particularly hip hop and R&B tunes like “Blurred Lines”—are created by a producer working with some combination of computer program, sampler and drum machine, with a songwriter contributing a melody and sometimes lyrics. Looking at the sheet music is the wrong test for copyright infringement, and DNA barcoding is the wrong test for herbal authenticity.
So let’s see what we have here. A bunch of herbal supplements from Walmart and a couple of other places were tested by a politically motivated attorney general. They used a worthless test and then, on the basis of the results, mounted a highly publicized attack against the entire supplement industry.
Don’t fall for it.
Instead, renew your efforts to be a conscientious, informed and educated consumer. Buy the best supplements you can find, from reliable companies you know, from reliable stores that you trust. That doesn’t mean shunning supplements at all—it means buying good ones.
I’m not quite sure why anyone would go looking for high quality herbs at Walmart in the first place, (which seems to me to be like looking for fresh caught fish in Hutchinson, Kansas). But I am quite sure that this latest witchhunt is going to make precisely zero difference to me in my supplement buying and my supplement taking behavior.
I’m going to ignore it. I suggest you do the same.
- 2010 Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers' National Poison Data System (NPDS): 28th Annual Report
NOTE: The statements presented in this column should not be considered medical advice or a way to diagnose or treat any disease or illness. Dietary supplements do not treat, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of a medical professional before altering your daily dietary regimen. The opinions presented here are those of the writer. WholeFoods Magazine does not endorse any specific company, brand or product.
Posted on WholeFoods Magazine Online, 3/16/15