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Analytical Chemistry

Herbal Disclosure

Rather quickly, we have some results from that conflict between the New York State Attorney General and the herbal supplements retailers. GNC has reached a deal with the office, and will (1) use DNA barcoding assays to verify that their plant-material supplements are actually the plant on the label, (2) state in its stores and on its website whether a given supplement contains plant material or an extract of same, and (3) “. . .spotlight that extracts are chemicals derived from plants after applying solvents such as liquid carbon dioxide. . .”
That plant matter/plant extract business is in response to one of the counterarguments brought after the original findings – merchants pointed out that the extract might well not contain any of the orginal source’s DNA. This makes me wonder if some other supplement brands might see a marketing opportunity, if GNC is going to tell people that their pills contain chemicals extracted by solvents. Nothing yet from the other stores mentioned in the NYAG report (Target, Wal-Mart, Walgreens), but I wouldn’t be surprised if similar deals are in the works.

31 comments on “Herbal Disclosure”

  1. Brent Michael Krupp says:

    Seems like if you’re going to believe in magic and drink potions (or whatever) that you might as well just eat pure ground up plants. Why do solvent extractions? Might ruin the magic! So it is a great marketing opportunity.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hopefully this agreement will be a catalyst for a wider effort towards getting the whole supplement industry to be held accountable, perhaps by federal legislation, for the contents of their products. Mislabeling, false advertising, and adulteration of supplements (often with dangerous unapproved drugs) are routine and commonplace.

  3. steve says:

    I’m as opposed to nonsensical supplements masquerading as medicines as anyone but there are some who might think that the chemical industry, which has dumped thousands of chemicals into the environment as well as our food without any labeling or testing whatsoever is also “mislabeling, false advertising and adulteration”. We’ve dumped CFCs that destroyed the ozone, chemicals that may cause cancer and alter hormonal systems (BPA, perchlorate, asbestos, and most recently glyphosphate, which WHO says probably causes cancer). It’s no wonder that people flee to the supposed safety of natural cures. If even educated chemists can’t distinguish which of these compounds are safe and which are not then how is the average consumer going to do so?

  4. luysii says:

    Fortunately, marihuana is ‘natural’ and not a ‘chemical” so there couldn’t possibly be any harm to it. After all, various state legislatures have decided that it’s medical use is quite safe. Perhaps not if you’re pregnant.

  5. John Wayne says:

    @3 I agree that there is a huge disconnect between what has been demonstrated with herbal medicine, and the expectations of the public. Unfortunately, you have to be very highly educated to understand that we don’t know if or for whom this stuff works. It looks like the industry is working up the following scale:
    1. The manufacturer shouldn’t lie about what it is in the bottle
    2. The seller should check if the right stuff is in the bottle
    3. The consumer should be informed of the process by which it got into the bottle
    4. The health outcomes should be supported by evidence
    5. The health outcomes should be supported by good evidence

  6. Ted says:

    The FDA is there precisely because the consumer cannot be expected to understand the intricacies of food additives and drug efficacy. Up until this point, however, they’ve largely sat on their hands. As #2 points out, this agreement will hopefully catalyze more action at the federal level.
    I wouldn’t be so quick to lump glyphos and BPA into a list of known carcinogens. The IARC “evidence” is pretty sparse. I’d be far more worried about sunshine than Roundup…

  7. CMCguy says:

    #3 steve although doubtful would have much impact on those some who think chemical industry has purposely set out to harm people or the environment what you say leans toward a straw man argument. Most examples you site appear to be retroactive cases of unforeseen consequences of developing or using chemicals for a particular and highly useful applications without realizing detrimental results that took a long period to become evident so while remains responsibility there is likely less overt intentions. Awareness and knowledge have been grown along with increased general and mandated testing or simulated safety evaluation, but exposure risks is the kind of thing that unclear if can ever can truly know enough beforehand, however I would trust an educated chemists with minimal effort would be able to probably categorizes in broad buckets of OK, Not OK and Not known.
    On the other hand for the most part Herbal Industry is taking the concept of known and established benefits of existence of natural based remedies and medicines then greatly exploiting limited info or tenuous connectivity to advance packaged products. I really think to comparison you or the some one leaped to to jump on chemical industry would be a distortion.

  8. steve says:

    #7, you make my point. It’s the responsibility of chemical companies to make sure that something is safe before dumping tons and tons of it into the environment. I never said it was purposeful, it’s just that money has taken precedence over safety. The danger from supplements is infinitesimal to what we’ve spewed into the air, sea and food supply. I don’t see how anyone who is an objective scientist can question that.

  9. DN says:

    The U.S. FDA has not sat on their hands. They aggressively destroyed any company that even hinted that a particular natural product might be useful, and it was necessary for the legislature to chop their hands off. Before they were reigned in, they had nearly reached the point of requiring a $100M trial to determine if warm milk was safe for the indication of insomnia, and heaven help you if you marketed it as good for growing bones.

  10. pete says:

    @ 6 and 9
    It’s not even been in FDA’s purview to regulate on herbal supplements.
    Thank Orrin Hatch R-UT and his rich buddies for that:

  11. MoMo says:

    Don’t blame Hatch as the FDA can’t even stop counterfeit Viagra from reaching our shores, and you get what you pay for. Not all supplements are bad, not all DNA procedures conclusive, and AGs and NY science can be a good thing, as Martha would say.
    But let’s not confuse mass exposure to chemicals by multinational chemical companies with mass exposure to purposely ingested chemicals made by multinational chemical companies.

  12. steve says:

    It’s not confusion, it’s trying to put some balance into the rather haughty approach scientists take to the public’s desire to rid themselves of the thousands of artificial substances the chemical industry has released into the environment without appropriate testing. Many of these substances have been demonstrated to be toxic. The public may not be sophisticated in chemistry but their fear of what the chemical industry has done is real and valid. That’s what makes them prone to manipulation by companies that try to sell them “natural” cures. I just don’t think we can be so full of hubris about the reason people seek them out.

  13. alig says:

    Steve, we get it. All chemical companies are evil. The chemicals always cause more harm than good. Luckily, I am a trained Organic chemist so I can work in the green industry. Is it possible to get chemicals labelled as “organic” like we do fruits & vegetables?

  14. steve says:

    That’s what I mean.

  15. Nick K says:

    Steve: Why are you so sure man-made chemicals are so much more harmful than “natural” ones? Could you give us some epidemiological evidence for the harm all these artificial chemicals are causing?

  16. steve says:

    You’re putting up a straw man. I never said that man-made chemicals are more harmful than natural ones; there are certainly carcinogens that occur naturally. But we’ve still greatly increased our exposure (and those of our children) by dumping enormous amounts of untested, man-made chemicals into the environment (as well as our homes). See

  17. steve says:

    Here is their conclusion:
    “The Panel was particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.”

  18. Nick K says:

    Steve: In that case, I’m sure you can cite evidence that the overall age-adjusted incidence of cancer is increasing in Western societies.

  19. Saturated Solution says:

    Stop all chemical synthesis, industrial production and new product development until we can test each individual compound component for ALL potential effects (cancer, cardiovascular, respiratory, unknown?) for multiple years using multiple animal models. Only then will we know what is truly safe – and by that time we’ll all be dead!

  20. Some idiot says:

    Hey guys, give steve a break… He is _not_ saying that “herbal is good and man-made is bad”. He is _not_ saying that herbal products (however you define them) don’t have side effects that can be problematic. What he is saying is that the harm caused by herbals is relatively peanuts compared to the harm caused by other mass-produced chemicals which were later found out to have really bad down-sides…
    Therefore, it would befit us better as scientists and chemists to be a bit more humble… And I agree… A bit of humility goes a long way…
    That said, in my opinion, yes, the guys who sell herbal products need to be regulated and watched.

  21. Biosafety professional says:

    It is wise to remember that scientists are people. As people, scientists are subject to all of the human failings that have plagued people since “the beginning:” Pride/hubris, prejudice, bigotry, fear, lust, greed, bias and outright dishonesty. This includes peer reviewers for scientific journals. Like most people, scientists are inclined to do things for their own benefit, sometimes things that are harmful to those around them. Being a scientist doesn’t make you a better person… it just means that you know more; that knowledge may be used for good, or evil.

  22. John Wayne says:

    The real challenge of this discussion is answering the question of ‘what does toxic mean?’ There was a recent publication on the replacements for BPA and their greater effect on hormone levels.
    This study was done on zebrafish; as such, I’m not really sure what that means. It is vaguely alarming. Are zebrafish enough like humans that this is a thing? Where are we going to draw the line? What other compounds show this effect?
    There is more than enough grey in testing products that each person will naturally draw conclusions from the results that supports their own prejudices. At the moment, I believe that the law of intended consequences will always be there. Until our knowledge of biology gets orders of magnitude better, we’re going to have to make good guesses.
    I am very concerned that the very polarizing way people argue about this is making it harder for people to decide their own level of risk. Once I objectively looked at the actual meaning of marketing tools like organic, natural, and hormone free (from a regulatory perspective); I become alarmed that these labels have not been put in place to inform, but to sell.

  23. steve says:

    There are standard assays for testing carcinogenicity. The Ames test, which uses strains of Salmonella to test for mutagenicity, is one that is well-known. Bruce Ames showed that all carcinogens are mutagens and developed the assay. The micronucleus test, which looks at chromosomal damage, is another. These are all standardized, validated toxicology assays. Any new chemical released into the environment should have to undergo at least a standard battery of assays. They are not expensive, give results in a month or two and are predictive of carcinogenicity. That we don’t do this is based more on profit-motive than science.
    Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, which hasn’t been updated since the 1970’s, it is the EPA’s responsibility to test these compounds rather than the manufacturer’s. Companies do not need to provide any safety data whatsoever; if EPA does not block the chemical within 90 days of submission then the it can go on the market.
    What this means is that EPA can’t require testing until the chemical has been shown to be toxic, which clearly is a regulatory nightmare. Efforts to change the law have been blocked by chemical industry lobbyists.
    We can rant and rave all we want about the supplement industry, which clearly is based on a lot of pseudo-science, but maybe we should clear our own houses first.

  24. Derek Lowe says:

    #25 Steve – the Ames test is certainly useful. But it’s not the cut-and-dried case that you seem to be making it out to be. You should remember that there are vast numbers of Ames-positive compounds that do not appear to have any correlation with human cancer – Bruce Ames himself has written about this issue at length. And there are also Ames-negative carcinogens – detecting those is an active field of toxicological research all by itself.

  25. steve says:

    Hi Derek – I’m not saying it’s cut-and-dried but I am saying that it’s not an excuse to dump thousands of tons of untested compounds into the environment without any testing whatsoever. If a company fails the Ames test there are additional assays they can use to show that it was a false positive if they want the product on the market. But the onus should be on the company that intends to release the product out into the world, not for a government agency with limited budget to try and play catch-up. I’m not sure why a chemical company should be allowed to dump large amounts of chemicals into the environment to enter the food chain but we’re all aghast that the supplement industry is relatively unregulated.

  26. Synthon61 says:

    I have always liked the work that the late Lois Swirsky Gold did with Bruce Ames. I think it brings in a little perspective: as Derek says many naturally occurring compounds are carcinogenic by animal tests. By far the worst chemical we consume is alcohol (except for workers exposed up to 1980 and certain herbal supplements,both limited groups) which I think most of us try to deny.

  27. steve says:

    I don’t think that the fact that there are naturally occurring carcinogens means that it doesn’t matter if you go ahead and smoke cigarettes. I’m not sure what thesis is being defended here – we need to regulate echinacea sold at health food stores but it’s fine to dump tons of untested chemicals into the environment without any regulation? This is just the inverse of the fallacious argument of the supplement industry – they think that because something is natural it’s safe, whereas people on this board seem to think that just because something was synthesized in a fume hood then it’s safe. I’m saying that anything a company makes should be tested first before it’s sold.

  28. Lloyd T J Evans says:

    One thing which has so far been overlooked (by steve et al) in this discussion is what we mean by released into the environment. Because this has a profound effect on whether any given chemical can even be in a position to cause harm.
    If we mean intentionally released into the atmosphere or water supply where anyone can breathe or drink it, then of course we should be concerned. Anything intentionally put into food, cosmetics or medication obviously has to be treated with the utmost concern, because these are things which we either consume or intentionally come into contact with.
    A close second to that would be anything which unavoidably gets into our air and water. Chemicals which may be spewed out of chimneys or exhaust stacks, sprayed onto farm fields (where runoff gets into water courses) or emitted into the ocean should of course be strictly regulated. There have of course been numerous failures in that regard. Acidic gases causing acid rain are a good example. Pesticides are another, particularly the persistent variety such as DDT. Some synthetic fertilisers also belong here – eutrophication was a predictable consequence of excessive fertiliser use.
    Accidental releases correctly belong to a different category. There are many harmful chemicals used in large scale synthesis, but are never intentionally put into our food, air or water. Should these be subject to the same level of scrutiny as the rest? That is somewhat more difficult to answer. You might say that anything in large scale industrial use should be tested and regulated, because accidental releases do happen sometimes, and it is good to know what might happen to anyone exposed. But then again, how do you define what is large scale? Crude feedstocks from petroleum? Intermediates in petrochemical synthesis? Starting materials for drug manufacture? Pilot plant scale manufacturing? Fine chemical synthesis? What about laboratory scale of a few grams here and there in academic labs?
    As the scale decreases, the size and risk of a potential release also decreases. But also, as the scale of use decreases, the range of different chemicals used massively increases. A large scale chemical plant uses only a handful of different compounds. But an experimental laboratory might use hundreds. Should we have to test absolutely everything, no matter how little of it is used? Also, who is responsible for doing such testing – the original manufacturers, or the users? What if the original manufacturer IS the user, as is the case whenever a novel compound is discovered? The point is that deciding what to test and when to test it can be difficult questions to answer. But if adequate safety and public protection are ranked as primary concerns, those questions must be answered.
    One of the most clear cut examples of the intentional use of a chemical known to be harmful was of course the use of tetraethyl lead (TEL) in petrol (sorry, gasoline). The large scale use of this started in the 1920s after it was discovered to have a powerful anti-knock effect in internal combustion petrol engines. A whole company (the ethyl corporation) sprung up to manufacture this one compound, which was immediately put into large scale, widespread use. Amazingly, the use continued for another 50 years until it began to be phased out for road use. Even more amazingly, it is still used today in some aviation fuels, notably avgas.
    This was all in spite of the fact that we knew full well that lead and its compounds were toxic, well before TEL was first synthesized. You might say that TEL, being a new compound in the 1920s, might not have been predictably toxic, or that its toxicity might have taken time to become apparent. But you would be wrong – workers in the factories making it started dying from lead poisoning almost from day 1. And yet we still continued to use and produce it in ever increasing quantities. Its dangers were denied by those with vested interests in its production, even though such dangers were blindingly obvious at the time. Even when such corrosive greed was overcome and the dangers of TEL became well known, the time taken to phase out its use and find alternatives was excessive and deeply disturbing.

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