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Analytical Chemistry

More Herbal Goodness

As many will have heard, the New York State Attorney General’s office is going after a number of herbal supplement retailers for selling products with poor quality controls. A range of supplements (including echinacea, garlic, gingko, and saw palmetto) were purchased, and analyzed by the “DNA barcode” technique at Clarkson U.
The results were not encouraging. The great majority of samples had no detectable DNA from the plants that supposedly make up the supplement. (In the case of Wal-Mart’s store brand, 94% of all the samples failed on this count). But it’s not like no plant DNA was found – no, there was rice, bean, wild carrot, asparagus, wheat, palm tree, daisy. . and my personal favorite, dracena, a well-known houseplant. This parallels a 2013 study from Guelph, which found very similar mismatches and contamination.
Analyzing the contents of these herbal preparations is not easy, as this 2013 C&E News piece by Jyllian Kemsley details. That leads to one possible way out for the supplement makers (and salesmen): if you look at the labels for (say) GNC brand ginkgo biloba, you find that it’s an extract. (The saw palmetto, on the other hand, is available as an extract or as the berries, which are presumably dried and powdered). It’s not clear from the NYAG’s press release which of these were tested, but if it’s a solvent-derived plant extract formulation, you might well not expect to find any of the original plant’s DNA. This, in fact, is the defense being offered by some of the spokespeople for the industry today, and it has some merit.
What pokes a hole in that defense, though, are the contaminants. Tablets or capsules of plant extracts should, by that argument, have no DNA in them at all. They especially should not show evidence of rice, beans, weeds, and houseplants. But these do, which makes a person wonder a bit about the manufacturing process. Another interesting fact that turned up was that echinacea and saw palmetto themselves turned up as contaminants in other supplements entirely, which also points to sloppy practice back at the factory, wherever that may be.
I stand by my former conclusion: that the herbal supplement industry is not a very funny joke. The 1994 law – thank you so much, Orrin Hatch – that enables these people also shields them from a great deal of regulatory scrutiny. As libertarian as my sympathies are sometimes, I have to admit that in medicine and health products the scamsters multiply like crazed cockroaches when you let up on them, and this industry is a massive, whalloping example of just that problem. This article at The Atlantic is correct: “If one wanted to engineer a lucrative sham, the model of the supplement industry is a promising one”. Lucrative it certainly is. And a sham, too.

35 comments on “More Herbal Goodness”

  1. Justathought says:

    Energy drinks should also be scrutinized.

  2. Wavefunction says:

    Well, at least they contain known stimulants like caffeine and sugar. In fact I would argue that unlike most herbal supplements, energy drinks’ composition is usually transparently obvious.

  3. Justathought says:

    some have ginseng and other extracts. Admittedly cost of shipping water = US manufacture, so most would pass inspection.

  4. milkshake says:

    Mountebanks selling cure – all patent medicine is a venerable american tradition. So is taring and feathering them.

  5. Doug Steinman says:

    I find herbal tea to be quite effective at shaking off the cold of a winter’s night. Maybe I should apply for a concept patent.

  6. luysii says:

    There is a cultural reason for Orrin Hatch’s defense of the herbal industry. He’s from Utah, and when the Mormons got there in the mid 1800’s, conventional medicinal plants were thin or nonexistent on the ground. The classic medicinal gardens of New England and the Midwest wouldn’t grow in the desert climate, so they experimented with the native plants to make what medicines they could. It was all they had and herbal medications became a part of their culture.

  7. John Thacker says:

    It should, of course, still be punished. However I can’t help but be bemused in noting that even if the supplements contained what they claimed, they would still be useless. Presumably there’s some anti-gluten hysteric very annoyed about the presence of wheat in certain of these pills, though.
    Could be worse, I suppose. In the UK the NHS will actually pay for homeopathy.

  8. Thomas says:

    A shop nearby had actual packages of ‘snake oil’ with a photo of a snake. I think it is of arabic origin. Some googling tells me it is herbal in nature. You can fint it on ebay by looking for ‘snake oil’. Seems to be popular, actually, and makes for a good laugh IMO.
    It is supposed to make for nice hair. I can imagine, if used on the hair, actually. But the packaging is hilarious.

  9. Apparently there’s some evidence that eicosapentaenoic acid has anti-inflammatory effects, and it’s a significant component of the original snake oil lineament that was made literally from the fat of the Chinese water snake. Scientific American article at , various references (mostly on possible treatment of mental illness) in the Wikipedia article on eicosapentaenoic acid. But of course if you buy something labelled “snake oil,” it may well only be snake-oil snake oil made at best from some other kind of snake.

  10. Erebus says:

    Rice flour is used to lubricate spray-dryers & prevent them from gunking-up, and the vast majority of herbal extracts are spray-dried. So it’s not surprising that rice was in so many of the samples. Wheat flour likewise is used as lubricant, filler, and drying agent. So they might have detected wheat and rice DNA, but it’s not necessarily all that was in the caps. Maybe the QC at these huge companies is terrible, but I think that it’s more likely that the AG’s testing was inadequate.
    I’d add that rice flour is commonly used to fill excess capsule space.

  11. milkshake says:

    @ snake oil: It is a rip-off based on traditional Chinese medicine. Certain snake venoms are actually quite effective at reducing arthritis-related pain and swelling. They used to sell snake venom arthritis ointment in the Soviet Union. (The ointment was fairly unstable and had to be stored in the fridge. This led to a gruesome accident – an old man stricken with pain in the middle of the night, while not wearing glasses, grabbed the wrong tube and spread sardine paste all over himself. It worked.)

  12. MTK says:

    Wait, hold on.
    Rice flour is used as an industrial lubricant and that stuff is in our supplements?
    That’s like having yoga mat chemical in our bread!
    Sounds like a job for the Food Babe.

  13. DH says:

    This story is amusing in a “fool and his money” way, but I find it hard to get too worked up about it. In most cases, the biological effect of the “tainted” supplement is probably equivalent to that of the pure stuff. So let the people buy their placebos if they want.

  14. Chrispy says:

    @13 DH
    As drug discovery people we should make an effort to keep an open mind and recognize the limitations of our current system.
    While you are certainly right that most of these are placebos, anyway, it is entirely possible that for some people there are some supplements that would be effective against their ailments. Many of these extracts have been around for so long that there is no way to get IP, and the clinical trials would not be worth the cost. Or the disease has many potential causes and a given supplement only works on some of them.
    I have tried glucosamine for arthritis and abandoned it because I saw no effect. Now I wonder if I really tried it at all.
    No, this really comes down to outright fraud: they are selling one thing and calling it another. I do wish they had done something other than just PCR to nail this down, though. This evidence is too easily refuted.

  15. Esteban says:

    @6: Hatch’s sponsorship of the Hatch/Waxman Act is more likely due to successful lobbying by NuSkin and Usana, which are two of the three large multi-level marketing (MLM) companies peddling this garbage and located in Hatch’s Utah. Perhaps not coincidentally, Waxman represented CA, home to the largest MLM, Herbalife.

  16. luysii says:

    #15 — But the history as given is probably why NuSkin and Usana are IN Utah in the first place.

  17. croon says:

    A person I know refused to partake in a particular drink powder, and when asked why, they pointed to the “silicon dioxide” on the ingredients list and said that they “don’t like the sound of it”. Even after explanation, the person maintained that they wouldn’t want to have it anyway.
    It’s the inherent phobia of anything remotely “chemical” that will keep driving the sale of “natural alternatives”. I don’t even know where to begin in helping lift this ignorance.

  18. Vicki says:

    You don’t have to be a “hysteric” to be upset about undeclared contents. Not only do some people actually have celiac disease, others are allergic to a wide variety of ordinary plants, including beans (another of the contaminants listed there).
    People with allergies need to know what they’re eating, or rather, what they’re not eating.

  19. DN says:

    Many natural drugs are neither placebos nor scams. I have chronic migraine, for which no reliable treatments exist. Feverfew, coenzyme Q10, magnesium, and vitamin D definitely and consistently help me. Many others did not help, and not for lack of trying! Some made things worse, like cayenne capsules, not surprising considering the capsaicin content. Phenols like quercetin and resveratrol consistently make me feel ill in the same way.

    I would not mind having rationally-designed, well-validated drugs, but CNS pharmacology is a desert. Trying natural products is a sensible, if desperate, strategy.

    P.S. It’s awfully rich to be called a scam victim by someone in the same industry that keeps using valproate as a magical Swiss army knife.

  20. GLen says:

    There should be a mandated US Herbal Pharmacopeial standard for any herbal product with multistate distribution. No statement of efficacy, but rather strict standards for content.
    That would give the public good information for widely marketed products, and would seem to match US legal traditions.

  21. Chemjobber says:

    Linked in my handle is the campaign contributions for Herbalife International from Open Secrets. It’s pretty eye-opening stuff (more than a million in 2014), including a $1000 contribution to Henry Waxman in 2008. Interesting…

  22. kjk says:

    I am 100% for selling herbal supplements, because many Rx drugs are $$$ and herbal remedies DO work once in a while. If a paper comes out that says xyz is better for you, a pill is a convenient way to get it, so long is it is not toxic or anything.
    However, LYING about what is in the capsule, and that includes about how much is in the capsule, should be banned.

  23. Anonymous says:

    What I find funny would be the people who took these fake supplements and touted the benefits of them.

  24. MTK says:

    No one is saying all supplements are placebos or scams, although most probably are. I have no doubt that some of them work as intended for some of the population.
    The gist of the article, and #22’s comment, is that should you not have some assurance that what’s on the label matches what’s in the bottle? Right now there’s nothing of the sort.
    How then are you to know that fewverfew which seems to work for you is actually fewverfew? Or that the next bottle you buy has the same dose as previous ones?
    That’s the scam being addressed here. Are you getting what you’re paying for?
    It’s not about efficacy claims which is a different scam altogether.

  25. Sam Adams the Dog says:

    One could also argue that the whole supplement business is operated by crooks for the benefit of morons, and that the refined company who frequent this blog shouldn’t be concerned, because after all, the parties of the first and second part are getting exactly what they want — if not, in both cases, what they deserve.

  26. Hap says:

    @25: Unless you want a society run by crooks (whose history would have a pretty sure middle and end), you’d better stop them early. Letting them take out people who are not smart enough (or not willing to try to be smarter) doesn’t guarantee a smarter society, only a more evil one. (Once they finish the dumber people, they might have enough power and money to change the rules, and greed knows no bounds, so why would they stop with people who “deserve” for them to take their money?)
    @10: If they absorb the extracts in rice flour or if the rice DNA is derived from post-extraction manipulations, then it might be there, but the other plant DNAs don’t seem like they should be there. At best, there’s lots of cross-contamination. If you can do qPCR, should you have an idea of the relative amounts there? More than traces of the other plants would probably punch a hole in contamination as an explanation for other plant DNA’s presence.

  27. Migrainer too says:

    @19 DN, I too am a migrainer and worked with my neurologist to find clinical validated supplements that would help (after all the major classes of prescription migraine prophylactics). CoQ10 and Magnesium have been great for me, while many other supplements did nothing or made the condition worse. I desperately wish for a source of pharmaceutical grade, quality controlled, validated supply chain for these supplements. So, most of the supplement field may be placebo, but some of it isn’t, and it is a shame that QC is joke to some manufacturers in this arena (though I’d love to see some confirmatory HLPC/UPLC, not just PCR).

  28. tbroome says:

    So you’re saying industries won’t self-regulate and don’t put safety before profits?
    Next you’ll be telling me there’s a role for government to protect and improve the public’s health.
    To that I’ll respond with this statement (with the help of all the GOP presidential hopefuls), “Freedom, cut regulations, liberty, Reagan, cut taxes, no to socialism”.

  29. Anonymous says:

    @17: ‘they pointed to the “silicon dioxide” on the ingredients list and said that they “don’t like the sound of it”‘
    I wonder if more people would prefer to read “contains glass”? 🙂

  30. Erebus says:

    The AG hasn’t published their methods, or any detailed findings at all. They merely mentioned that they ‘found DNA’ from those other plant species. Whether this represents serious QC failings or merely trace contamination within FDA guidelines (up to 2%, I believe), is unknown at this time.
    I know that everybody hates the supplement industry — and with good reason! I’m just saying that this particular case isn’t straightforward, as the testing methods the AG used seem to have been completely inadequate. (It’s fairly common knowledge that you can’t always find DNA in plant extracts. And perhaps the harder you look, the more trace contaminants you find!)

  31. Sam Adams The Dog says:

    @26 Hap: i’m only a dog (iOAD™), but even so, i’m not in favor of a society run by crooks. i’m not in favor of being hit over the head and mugged, and i’m not in favor of international terrorism – or even the good old American home-grown kind. i’m not in favor of Ponzi schemes or of cheating on our taxes. Yet we don’t discuss these problems here. The food supplement crooks and morons have as little to do with drug discovery as any of the above. Its patrons don’t believe in drug discovery. They believe that chemicals are bad and that “natural” things aren’t made of chemicals. i don’t see why those who frequent this group should bother with them. All we can do is sit around and say “Tsk, tsk”. We’re all no doubt saying “Tsk, tsk” privately, but what is gained by hearing each other enunciate the same syllables?

  32. regularanalyst says:

    They must have testing the Max Strength capsules – herbal AND homeopathic!

  33. matt says:

    How do you screw up and not put garlic in a garlic capsule? Seems like that one ought to be pretty obvious, both to the company and to the consumer.

  34. Peter B says:

    I’m not sure what the labelling requirements are, but rice flour is a common excipient in many supplements, so rice DNA isn’t necessarily sinister. Houseplants, on the other hand, do sound more like some of the crappy, adulterated and fraudulent herbal products out there. Too bad the AG’s methodology sounds almost as bad.
    GNC is fighting back, showing more conventional analyses of phytochemical profiles in the products and lots the AG wanted pulled. This kind of profiling is the standard in various official pharmacopeias – which to date have mostly not been correlated with DNA analysis.
    So far, it sounds mostly like a political stunt using junk science. Color me surprised.

  35. Peter B says:

    Migrainer too, you might want to look for manufacturers that meet Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Act standards. Canada’s GMP standards are better than the USA’s, too.

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