A shocking new study has found many supplements on the market are fake, with researchers determining more than one-third of 44 products tested don't contain what's on the label. But one of the nation's top holistic doctors notes most supplements do not pose a risk and that there are steps consumers can take to protect themselves from bogus products.
David Brownstein, M.D., a board-certified family physician and medical director for the Center for Holistic Medicine in West Bloomfield, Mich., says the new scientific analysis of supplements reported confirms what he has long known — many pills labeled as healing herbs don't contain what the labels claim.
"I agree with this analysis," he tells Newsmax Health. "It is the Wild Wild West out there with supplements because there's nobody checking these things. I have been testing supplements for 20 years and finding that what's on the labels often isn't what's in the bottle. "
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Dr. Brownstein, a Newsmax contributor and editor of the Natural Way to Health
, uses supplements in his own practice, but makes sure that he is working with trustworthy companies that verify and guarantee the products they sell.
"It's a conundrum for consumers," he says, noting the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate supplements like drugs so consumer information can be difficult to find on herbal supplements.
"So what can you do? Try to buy things from reputable companies, because there are companies that [offer] products test out well. You should also work with a knowledgeable healthcare practitioner who should be able to verify what's in that label by asking the companies for their [product certification] data sheets … to make sure the labels reflect what's in the supplements."
The U.S. herbal supplements business is a $5 billion-per-year industry. In an effort to determine what's in some products, Canadian researchers used DNA barcoding — a type of genetic fingerprinting — to test 44 bottles of supplements sold by 12 companies in the U.S. and Canada.
The results, published in the journal BMC Medicine, showed many pills did not contain the ingredients on the labels; some were diluted or contained fillers like soybean, wheat, and rice. Among the findings:
- Bottles of echinacea, used to prevent and treat colds, were found to contain "bitter weed," a plant found in India and Australia linked to rashes and nausea.
- Two bottles labeled as St. John's wort, a natural antidepressant, had no traces of the herb. One contained only rice and another had Alexandrian senna, an Egyptian shrub used as a laxative.
- Gingko biloba supplements, promoted memory boosters, contained unlabeled black walnut, posing a potent risk for people with nut allergies.
Lead researcher Steven G. Newmaster, a biology professor and botanical specialist at the University of Guelph, noted the study's findings echo other research suggesting some herbal remedies are not what they seem, but are the first based on DNA testing. To avoid singling out any company, Newmaster's team did not identify the products tested.
Consumer advocates told The New York Times
the findings are evidence the herbal supplement industry is riddled with questionable practices.
"This suggests that the problems are widespread and that quality control for many companies, whether through ignorance, incompetence or dishonesty, is unacceptable," said David Schardt, a nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, according to The Times. "Given these results, it's hard to recommend any herbal supplements to consumers."
But industry representatives argued any problems are not widespread. Stefan Gafner, the chief science officer at the American Botanical Council, which promotes herbal supplements, said the study was flawed and that the bar-coding technology can not always identify herbs that have been purified and processed.
"Overall, I would agree that quality control is an issue in the herbal industry," Gafner said. "But I think that what's represented here is overblown. I don’t think it's as bad as it looks according to this study."
Dr. Brownstein also points out that supplements do not pose as great a risk as many drugs licensed and approved by the FDA. He also doesn't see an immediate need for tighter manufacturing regulations for herbal supplements.
"I think the FDA should, No. 1, get their house in order and monitor the drug side of things first, then maybe we can talk about the herbal stuff," he said. "The thing we can say about supplements is at least they're not killing anybody. But the FDA-approved drugs in hospital patients have been shown to kill more than 100,000 patients a year. "
Among the steps consumers can take to protect themselves from bogus supplements:
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- Call the supplement manufacturers and ask for a copy of the laboratory analyses of every batch of the products they make. "The good companies ought to be able to supply it," Dr. Brownstein says.
- Work with a doctor who is well-trained about supplement use and who can perform medical tests to be sure you're being treated properly. "If the doctor isn't knowledgeable, [and] working with you and following [you] with blood testing … you should work with a knowledgeable healthcare practitioner who has skill in using these things."
- Check product labels for what is known as a GMP Certification — indicating the supplements manufacturer complies with a standardized set of current good manufacturing practices (GMP) developed by the Natural Products Association, a nonprofit industry trade group. Under the GMP program, which is based on the FDA's Code of Regulations, certified companies agree to meet the NPA's criteria for product supplement consistency, quality, strength, and purity.
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