Walmart, Target and GNC Have Been Selling Fake Echinacea, Ginseng, St. John’s Wort

Echinacea, ginseng, St. John’s wort, garlic, ginkgo biloba and saw palmetto top the list of popular supplements found to contain little or none of the herbs listed on the label. New York State’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman ordered Target, GNC, Walgreens and Walmart to stop selling any herbal supplements on the tested list after an investigation revealed several popular supplements didn’t work and might even be harmful to use. Four out of five products tested contained fake herbs consisting of powdered rice or random, cheap herbal material made from houseplants and asparagus.

An extremely disappointing minority of 21 percent of generic, store-brand herbal supplements actually contained the plants claimed on the labels. Think about that for a second.

“Mislabeling, contamination and false advertising are illegal,” said Schneiderman. “They also pose unacceptable risks to New York families — especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients.”

Herbal remedies of this nature are not subject to F.D.A. approval since 1994, when a questionable federal law (Utah Senator, Orrin G. Hatch received campaign funds from supplement companies). There is not very much oversight in today’s supplement market, and even less accountability.

Anahad O’Connor broke the story for the NY Times:

As part of its investigation, the attorney general’s office bought 78 bottles of the leading brands of herbal supplements from a dozen Walmart, Target, Walgreens and GNC locations across New York State. Then the agency analyzed the products using DNA bar coding, a type of genetic fingerprinting that the agency has used to root out labeling fraud in the seafood industry… the tests found so many supplements with no DNA from the herbs on their labels but plenty of DNA from unlisted ingredients, said Marty Mack, and executive deputy attorney general in New York. “The absence of DNA does not explain the high percentage of contaminants found in these products,” he said. The burden is now with the industry to prove what is in these supplements.”

Target Corporation declined to comment.

GNC spokesperson Laura Brophy gave the expected response, “We stand by the quality, purity and potency of all ingredients listed on the labels of our private label products… We will certainly cooperate with the attorney general’s office in all appropriate ways.”

Walgreens had an even more lukewarm response than GNC, and Walgreens will “take appropriate action.”

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY