GNC, Target, Wal-Mart, Walgreens accused of selling adulterated ‘herbal supplements’

The recent headline that a study of dietary supplements sold by some of the nation's largest retailers contained little to no trace of the actual supplement being sold was quite astounding. It certainly raised eyebrows among many consumers who trust that the companies manufacturing and selling products are in fact providing a safe, quality product that actually contain the ingredients as labeled. 

The discount ginkgo biloba tablets you bought may contain mustard, wheat, radish and other substances decidedly non-herbal in nature, but they’re not likely to contain any actual ginkgo biloba.

That’s according to an investigation by the New York State attorney general’s office into store-brand supplements at four national retailers — GNC, Target, Walgreens and Wal-Mart. All four have received cease-and-desist letters demanding that they stop selling a number of their dietary supplements, few of which were found to contain the herbs shown on their labels and many of which included potential allergens not identified in the ingredients list.

Wal-Mart fared worst in the tests, with just 4% of its products tested confirming the DNA from plants on the products’ labels. 79% of DNA test didn’t find sign of plants listed on the label. Overall, 390 tests involving 78 samples were performed.

In addition, 35% of the product tests identified DNA bar codes from plant species not listed on the labels, representing contaminants and fillers, according to Schneiderman. Some of the contaminants identified include rice, beans, pine, citrus, asparagus, primrose, wheat, houseplant, wild carrot, and others, his office said. In many cases, unlisted contaminants were the only plant material found in the product samples.

Steve Mister, President and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, an industry trade group for dietary supplements, called the order “a self-serving publicity stunt under the guise of protecting public health” and said the type of test ordered could be wrong for these products.

“Processing during manufacturing of botanical supplements can remove or damage DNA,” Mister said. As a result, he said, DNA analysis “may be the wrong test for these kinds of products.”

Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association, said identification of an herb through DNA testing must be confirmed through other means, such as chromatography or microscopy.

“Supposed concerns about the products in question are based on a novel testing method that has been roundly criticized by botanical scientists who question whether DNA barcoding technology is an appropriate or validated test for determining the presence of herbal ingredients in finished botanical products,” it said. “Processing during manufacturing of botanical supplements can remove or damage DNA.”

Harvard Medical School assistant professor Pieter Cohen, who is an expert on supplement safety, told the New York Times that the test results were so extreme he found them hard to accept. He suggested that the manufacturing process may have destroyed some of the ingredients’ DNA, rendering the DNA barcode test ineffective.


While I agree with the opinions of Pieter Cohen and Michael McGuffin that these results seem very hard to believe, it is very possible for heat and over processing to damage the DNA of herbal supplements, thus explaining some of the test results. However, there is no excuse for manufacturers to be including fillers such as rice, wheat, and beans, especially given the large amount of people sensitive to various allergens such as gluten. If heat or other over processing damaged the DNA of the ingredients, it also means that the bioavailability and thus the efficacy of the ingredients are also adulterated as well. Additionally, perhaps chromatography would be better suited in a study like this for identifying the individual ingredients listed on a supplement label. 

We pride ourselves on using the best extraction and minimal processing methods to provide you with the purest source of moringa while maintaining the highest possible level of nutritional content. Using 100% pure ingredients naturally costs more from a manufacturing and growing perspective, which gives credence to the old adage 'You get what you pay for'. A $6 bottle of Ginko Biloba from Wal-mart may just be pure placebo effect, while a higher quality brand can be found for a reasonable and competitive price on Amazon. If time is of the essence, your local Natural Market of Wholefoods should carry a carefully selected assortment of supplements which tend to be of higher quality. The sales staff should be knowledgeable about the reputation and quality of the supplements they're selling as well as customer feedback and reviews on them, giving you an upper hand in making the best choice for your supplement purchase.

Even among manufacturers of moringa, especially those growing moringa in India, companies have been found to be taking short-cuts to make their product either cheaper or more marketable. The FDA has been notified of this and has begun random inspections on imported moringa to check for the addition of green food coloring in order to make the moringa appear more vibrant and fresh. This obviously is a huge breach of trust and shows the extent that some less scrupulous organizations (most of the time on the processors side, not necessarily on the US based companies part) will go to in order to increase their profits. A recent random inspection of our moringa tested for filler, additives, and food coloring and tested negative for all of them. Our products were rated 'A1', the best classification for purity. 

We pride ourselves on the ability to have special relationships with our growers and test regularly for heavy metals, additives and other impurities. We look forward to bringing you a new line of 100% Pure Leaf Moringa vegetarian capsules and beauty products within the next few months. 

Quality ingredients and verifiable transparency are paramount to building a sustainable successful brand in this industry and for the sake of consumers as well as the state of industry, we hope that there is more to this story than just the face value of the test results.