Ever wonder what would happen if we didn’t have government regulations? You don’t have to wonder any more, because we have a class of products that has enjoyed virtually no regulation: dietary supplements like ginkgo bilboa, echinacea, and ginseng.
For a long time there were no regulations on dietary supplements. Companies could manufacture almost anything, call it a dietary supplement, and make any claims they wanted about it – including curing diseases or helping you lose weight.
Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, things got only cosmetically better. The law made it illegal to make unsubstantiated or misleading claims about dietary supplements, but left it largely up to the manufacturers to police themselves. Unfortunately, proof of effectiveness or safety is still not required. The FDA can take action against dietary supplements only after they have been proven to be unsafe. And while manufacturers are not supposed to claim to cure diseases, they can make “structure or function” claims (e.g., that it gives you more energy, makes you feel younger, or gives other vague health benefits). Unfortunately, the government has almost no power to enforce even those minimal regulations.
So how is that working out for us?
A new investigation by the New York State attorney general’s office tested dietary supplements from four respected national retailers: GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Wal-Mart. The investigation used sophisticated DNA testing to figure out the ingredients in these supplements. The supplements carried the brand of the store, so there was no way to blame some third-party manufacturer. They tested 24 products covering seven different types of herb: echinacea, garlic, gingko bilboa, ginseng, saw plametto, St. John’s wort, and valerian root.
According to their tests only five of the 24 products tested actually contained any of the herb they claimed to be. Let me repeat that. 80% of the products were fraudulent and worthless. The worst offender was Wal-Mart. None of their six tested products contained the herb they advertised on the label.
Adding potential injury to insult, seven of the products contained ingredients known to cause allergic reactions in people, without identifying them in the ingredients. For example, celiacs can have severe reactions (or even die) if they ingest wheat, but five of the products contained wheat without any warning at all. So some of these products are more likely to harm consumers than to help them.
A professor at Harvard Medical School said “if this data is accurate, then it is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry”.
The New York investigation was prompted by a 2013 article in the NY Times, which referred to research at a Canadian university that found that a third of herbal supplements do not contain the plants listed on their labels, and instead contain only cheap fillers.
The 1994 federal law was written and sponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), a strong and steadfast supporter of dietary supplements. He has repeatedly quashed efforts in Congress to regulate dietary supplements. In return, Hatch has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the industry.