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The New York Attorney General, Herbs, and You

If you’ve lived in the US for longer than a few weeks, you know there’s just something about attorneys general and their endless quest for publicity. After all, jailing petty criminals must become tedious and if you’ve got any political ambition at all you need to set your sights higher.

Seeing the words “attorney general” this week, I recalled a recent article about how private lawyers are creating huge paychecks for themselves by encouraging state attorneys general to create an atmosphere of high-dollar litigation much like product liability, class action efforts.

And so it was with the words “ambition” and “litigation” uppermost in my mind that I began reading that the New York Attorney General had sent a cease and desist notification to the nation’s largest nutritional supplement retailers (GNC, Walmart, Walgreens, Target) ordering them to pull from their shelves six herbs: ginseng, St. John’s wort, gingko biloba, Echinacea, garlic, saw palmetto, and valerian. This made the front page of every media outlet that has a front page.

As for the potential class action suits–wow. Walmart? Walgreens? The numbers leave you breathless.

My aunt calls from Florida and investigations begin
Since more than half of all Americans take supplements daily, I’m guessing there were a great many unswallowed pills in US homes following the report. My elderly aunt in Florida, long convinced that her GNC herbs were responsible for keeping her alive for the past three decades (she’s now 92), threw out everything labeled GNC and called me to say since she hadn’t been feeling well, could it be the contaminated herbs?

The targeted retailers, correctly sensing a backlash from the bowels of hell, promised full investigations into their suppliers. Palming off capsules of barn droppings as an energizing ginseng or immune-stimulating Echinacea is better known as serious, dangerous consumer fraud. A few years ago, the Chinese government executed its top drug and herb regulator for taking bribes.

Movie buffs may recall that in the film “The Third Man” Harry Lime came to a bad end when it was discovered he’d been selling fake penicillin and children had been dying of meningitis.

Fake anything (drugs, herbs, paintings, money) is serious business. But as I carefully read the cease and desist letter, I actually felt my skeptical hackles rising. Something seemed wrong about this.

Suspect testing procedures
Actually, several things seemed wrong.

  1. Although the herbs came from different suppliers, if you look at a single herb such as gingko biloba as an example, you realize not a single tested sample contained any gingko biloba at all. That shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that four or five different manufacturers are all separately replacing their gingko with the same junk, but rather that something might be wrong with the test itself.
  2. The test used by the attorney general is called DNA bar coding, a form of genetic “fingerprint” identification actually quite similar to bar coding in a checkout line. When a capsule was selected for testing, the technology would single out a unique band of DNA and compare it to others in an electronic database. However, this form of testing doesn’t take into account any alteration in DNA that might occur during the preparation of the final product.
  3. The attorney general based his cease and desist letters solely on the findings from a single laboratory company that used only this DNA technique. There were no controls, meaning the lab didn’t check its results against a known pure sample of gingko.
  4. My real concern here is with the adulterants (stuff in the capsule that was not gingko), although this, too, could be a lab error. The adulterant issue is one that the American Botanical Council has been vigorously tackling.

In fact, what the attorney general ought to have done, although it would have cost him his spot on the nightly news, is to take his findings to the American Botanical Council and say, “We’ve got a serious issue here.”

He might have mentioned something about the flaws of DNA barcoding and noted that a variety of other, well-established tests should have been used as controls. Click here for more detail. He also would have learned that the issue of adulterated products is being taken very seriously by manufacturers, natural medicine schools, and trade associations, which have come together to guarantee the safest possible products to the public.

So what should you do?
First, keep in mind that the real winner in this hullaballoo is Big Pharma. Conventional physicians around the country, citing this event, will likely now actively discourage you from using nutritional supplements, especially herbs. You patients who do stick to your guns about your faith in herbal medicine might point out that Big Pharma has always been a huge donor and major lobbyist in the offices of the attorneys general and thus at this point you’re not going to rush to judgment.

My suggestion going forward is this: much like paint, tires, and dental floss, when it comes to purchasing herbs and other nutritional supplements, you get what you pay for.

The products selected for the WholeHealth Chicago Apothecary are chosen by our three physicians (Drs. Kelley and Donigan and me), our herbalist Seanna Tully and nutritionist Marla Feingold. The Chinese herbs are selected by acupuncturist/herbalist Mari Stecker.

We review the products and carefully evaluate each company’s safety protocols. Many of us have actually visited the suppliers’ herb farms and manufacturing facilities. Take a moment and look how one, Herb Pharm, makes its products.

In the wake of last week’s news, the two largest companies (Integrative Therapeutics and Metagenics) providing what are called pharmaceutical-grade supplements primarily to physicians immediately released position papers, both of which are worth reading.

Pharmaceutical grade is the top quality grade, meaning the purity, dissolvability, and absorption of the supplements meet the highest regulatory standards, verified by an outside party. Pharmaceutical-grade supplements may be available without a prescription but are typically sold only by licensed health care practitioners.

Lower down the quality chain are “medical grade,” “nutritional grade” (likely the Walmart, GNC group), and agricultural grade (for livestock). We’ve been recommending Integrative Therapeutics and Metagenics products for more than two decades and stand behind them completely. Other super-high quality names include Thorne Research, XYMOGEN, Pure Encapsulations, Allergy Research Group, and Ortho Molecular Products.

Ultimately, both sides–the attorney general of New York and the supplement industry–raise serious but important issues. Since it’s your health and your family’s that’s at stake, you absolutely want the best quality. If the withdrawn capsules contain dried and powdered crabgrass, you need to know. If, on the other hand, you’re advised by your doctor to abandon your herbs and stick with FDA pharmaceuticals, side effects and all, you want other realistic options.

Purchase quality nutraceuticals, remembering Buttercup’s song from H.M.S. Pinafore:

“Things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream…”

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD

Leave a Comment


  1. Kem says:

    Thank you for this article. The supplement controversy has been weighing heavily on my mind ever since I read the headlines. Like the recent “studies show supplements do nothing for your health” nonsense from a few months ago, I figured this was just more misleading propaganda courtesy of Big Pharma.

    Still, I’m guilty of cheaping out on some of my vitamins and decided to stop taking all of my supplements except for some pharmaceutical-grade fish oil. My mental health has been noticeably better ever since. Whether this is placebo effect, an unrelated coincidence, or if there was something truly wrong with the pills, I have no idea. All I know is that it was a good opportunity to reevaluate my current supplement routine and determine how much benefit, if any, I get from it.

    The pharmaceutical-grade fish oil has already made a noticeable enough difference in my life that I’ll continue to use it, controversy or not. The supermarket equivalent doesn’t even compare in terms of effectiveness. If I decide to add more supplements to my life again, I’m definitely springing for the higher-quality stuff.

  2. Addoe says:

    I’m with you. I smell a rat. But if there is one it’s the State of New York in for big trouble. When we see the clash of the Titans (my dream), as Big Retail meets Big Pharma, everyone will be looking at the New York Attorney General’s campaign contributors. I can hardly wait.

  3. John Pearson says:

    Thanks for another great article. In large part because of your health tips, I’ve learned to take such stories in the news with a grain of salt. And I’ve long suspected that quality of Walgreens, etc. supplements doesn’t match up to the ones I get at Whole Health and other superior suppliers. You do get what you pay for.
    It would be interesting to see how these tests came out if the tests had been done correctly.

  4. Seanna Tully says:

    I’ve personally visited Xymogen, Gaia herbs, and Herbalist and Alchemist facilities. All exceeded my expectations in quality control and verification of raw material. Xymogen, for example, is located 15 min away from the FDA training facility. They are inspected constantly and have a flawless facility.

  5. mimi harris says:

    When the AttorneyGeneral spokeon TV he was questioned and did address the DNA barcode issue. What is the problem with having supplements tested under the FDA Dr,Edelberg? Itreally bothers me that the supplements I take aren’t inspected in that way. As savvy as you are, you know that self policing in corporate America is very suspect. As for big Pharma contributing huge amounts to Atty Generals; it wouldn’t surprise me; probably similar to what the supplement industry has apparently done for Orrin Hatch & others.

    Meanwhile, I totally appreciate you (always have) and the information and analysis you present.
    thankyou.

  6. Dr E says:

    Hi Mimi
    There is absolutely nothing wrong with supplements being regularly tested by the FDA. I am 100% in favor of it and sorry if you got a different impression. The pharmaceutical grade supplement manufacturers are regularly checked by the FDA and this is one of the main reasons we at WholeHealth Chicago use these companies.
    What I was trying to convey was that the NY Attorney General might have gone about it in the wrong way. Obviously, products that are mislabeled should be pulled from the shelves. I would think however that prior to the dramatic cease and desist order, there would have been confirmatory tests using other test systems

  7. Mark Blumenthal, head of the American Botanical Council, a very level headed supporter of good information on natural products, has issued a position letter to New York State on this issue. Good herbal companies sued everything from neuroleptic testing (look at, smell touch and taste and identify the plant ingredients) to modern techniques like HPLC to identify active and marker components of herbs. The DNA testing may well be superfluous if the plant and ingredients meet these other criteria and the extract is devoid of marker.DNA traces.

    So the DNA testing may well be misleading, and bad science is always suspect when it leads to actions that may benefit specific interests.

    Letter quoted:
    Sent to: Thomas Feyer (Letters Editor);

    Re: Anahad O’Connor. New York Attorney General Targets Supplements at Major Retailers; What’s in Those Supplements? Health: Well Blog. Tuesday, February 3, 2015, p. D5.

    Dear Sir:

    We lead an international consortium of nonprofit organizations, professional research societies, industry trade associations, and others – dedicated to educating the public on the adulteration of botanical ingredients used in consumer health products: The ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Program.

    The New York State Attorney General’s study of herbal supplements is not based on adequate analytical methods, and its actions are thus premature. The use of DNA barcoding technology for testing of the identity of botanical dietary supplements is a useful but limited technology. DNA testing seldom is able to properly identify chemically complex herbal extracts as little or no DNA is extracted in many commercial extraction processes.

    Basing its actions on only one testing technology in only one laboratory, the New York AG results are preliminary and require further substantiation. Additional testing using microscopic analysis and validated chemical methods should be conducted to confirm the initial results upon which the AG is acting.

    Respectfully,

    Mark Blumenthal
    Founder & Executive Director
    American Botanical Council
    Editor-in-Chief, HerbalGram & HerbClip
    Austin, Texas

    (512) 926-4900 x102

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