On February 3, 2015, the New York State Attorney General announced that his office sent letters to four major retailers, GNC, Target, Walmart, and Walgreens, for allegedly selling store brand herbal supplement products in New York that either could not be verified to contain the labeled substance, or which were found to contain ingredients not listed on the labels. The letters, sent Monday, call for the retailers to immediately stop the sale of certain popular products, including Echinacea, Ginseng, St. John's Wort, Saw Palmetto, Valerian, and Ginkgo.
The letters come as DNA testing, performed as part of an ongoing investigation by the Attorney General's Office, allegedly shows that, overall, just 21% of the test results from store brand herbal supplements verified DNA from the plants listed on the products' labels -- with 79% coming up empty for DNA related to the labeled content or verifying contamination with other plant material.
The letters to retailers have been posted by The New York Times and are searchable by retailer and type of product.
ConsumerLab.com has requested additional information from the Attorney General's office regarding the exact names and identities of the tested products and details of the testing. The letters do not indicate whether the products were extracts or whole herb products. Extracts are not necessarily expected to contain DNA, but, instead, specific amounts of key marker compounds associated with the species and to which extracts are typically "standardized." ConsumerLab.com has tested and reported on herbal extract products sold by these retailers, using validated methods for evaluating these compounds, as well as for contamination with heavy metals, such as lead and cadmium, which can occur in herbal supplements. DNA testing does not evaluate heavy metal contamination nor quantify the amount of an ingredient, i.e., how much of an ingredient (or contaminant) is in a product.
While overall 21% of the product tests confirmed DNA barcodes from the plant species listed on the labels, 35% of the product tests identified DNA barcodes from plant species not listed on the labels, representing contaminants and fillers. A large number of the tests did not reveal any DNA from a botanical substance of any kind. Some of the contaminants identified include rice, beans, pine, citrus, asparagus, primrose, wheat, houseplant, wild carrot, and others. In many cases, unlisted contaminants were the only plant material found in the product samples.
If the producers of herbal supplements fail to identify all the ingredients on a product's label, a consumer with food allergies, or who is taking medication for an unrelated illness, is taking a potentially serious health risk every time a contaminated herbal supplement is ingested. The Attorney General's investigation is focused on potential violations of New York's General Business Law and Executive Law, including deceptive practices and deceptive advertising.
The DNA testing was performed by Dr. James A. Schulte II of Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. based on samples purchased from around New York State. (It is likely the products are the same as those sold by these retailers in other states.) The DNA tests were performed on three to four samples of each of the six herbal supplements purchased from the New York stores. Each sample was tested with five distinct sequence runs, meaning each sample was tested five times. Three hundred and ninety tests involving 78 samples were performed overall.
- Six "Herbal Plus" brand herbal supplements per store were purchased and analyzed: Gingko Biloba, St. John's Wort, Ginseng, Garlic, Echinacea, and Saw Palmetto. Purchased from four locations with representative stores in Binghamton, Harlem, Plattsburgh & Suffolk.
- Only one supplement consistently tested for its labeled contents: Garlic. One bottle of Saw Palmetto tested positive for containing DNA from the saw palmetto plant, while three others did not. The remaining four supplement types yielded mixed results, but none revealed DNA from the labeled herb.
- Of 120 DNA tests run on 24 bottles of the herbal products purchased, DNA matched label identification 22% of the time.
- Contaminants identified included asparagus, rice, primrose, alfalfa/clover, spruce, ranuncula, houseplant, allium, legume, saw palmetto, and Echinacea.
- Six "Up & Up" brand herbal supplements per store were purchased and analyzed: Gingko Biloba, St. John's Wort, Valerian Root, Garlic, Echinacea, and Saw Palmetto. Purchased from three locations with representative stores in Nassau County, Poughkeepsie, and Syracuse.
- Three supplements showed nearly consistent presence of the labeled contents: Echinacea (with one sample identifying rice), Garlic, and Saw Palmetto. The remaining three supplements did not revealed DNA from the labeled herb.
- Of 90 DNA tests run on 18 bottles of the herbal products purchased, DNA matched label identification 41% of the time.
- Contaminants identified included allium, French bean, asparagus, pea, wild carrot and saw palmetto.
- Six "Finest Nutrition" brand herbal supplements per store were purchased and analyzed: Gingko Biloba, St. John's Wort, Ginseng, Garlic, Echinacea, and Saw Palmetto. Purchased from three locations with representative stores in Brooklyn, Rochester and Watertown.
- Only one supplement consistently tested for its labeled contents: Saw Palmetto. The remaining five supplements yielded mixed results, with one sample of garlic showing appropriate DNA. The other bottles yielded no DNA from the labeled herb.
- Of the 90 DNA test run on 18 bottles of herbal products purchased, DNA matched label representation 18% of the time.
- Contaminants identified included allium, rice, wheat, palm, daisy, and dracaena (houseplant).
- Six "Spring Valley" brand herbal supplements per store were purchased and analyzed: Gingko Biloba, St. John's Wort, Ginseng, Garlic, Echinacea, and Saw Palmetto. Purchased from three geographic locations with representative stores in Buffalo, Utica and Westchester.
- None of the supplements tested consistently revealed DNA from the labeled herb. One bottle of garlic had a minimal showing of garlic DNA, as did one bottle of Saw Palmetto. All remaining bottles failed to produce DNA verifying the labeled herb.
- Of the 90 DNA test run on 18 bottles of herbal products purchased, DNA matched label representation 4% of the time.
Contaminants identified included allium, pine, wheat/grass, rice mustard, citrus, dracaena (houseplant), and cassava (tropical tree root).
ConsumerLab.com advises consumers who have purchased any of these types of herbal products from one these store brands to be aware of the potential contaminants noted above. Information about the amounts of these contaminants is not known, making it impossible to determine the potential for allergic reaction. It is not uncommon for very small amounts of contamination to occur from other plants in herbal products or fillers. It is difficult to comment on the significance of the finding of no DNA in many of the tested products, as the identities and listed ingredients for these products have not yet been disclosed, and many may be extracts and not necessarily be expected to contain DNA. If additional information is received about the products and tests, it will be posted here.
(2/9/2015) GNC has posted a response to the Attorney General's report, which you can read here.
(3/27/15) GNC announced a settlement with the Attorney General — see the March 27 posting on the "CL In the News" page.
(9/28/2016) NBTY (Nature's Bounty, Puritan's Pride, Solgar, Sundown Naturals) has reached an agreement with the Attorney General that it will use DNA barcoding to authenticate herbal ingredients, conduct tests to detect peanuts, soy and other allergens, and put other measures in place to ensure supplement quality. See the Attorney General's notice of the agreement here.
To see other warnings and recalls, use the red link below.