March 3, 2015

Herbal Supplements: "Caveat Emptor," Continued

I apply my “Less is More” mantra whenever I can, especially when it comes to pills and medications.

While I used to pop about a dozen dietary supplements every day, I’m now down to three. I’ve carefully researched the products I take, and feel confident that those supplements are helping me. I also think I’m taking the best version of the products now available on the market.

New York State Takes a Big Step
On February 2, 2015, the New York State attorney general’s office advised four of the country’s largest retailers -- Walmart, Target, Walgreens, and GNC -- to stop selling certain dietary supplements.

Using DNA bar coding that produces a kind of genetic fingerprint, the AG’s office determined that a whopping 80% of all tested samples of several top-selling products contained no trace of the key, advertised ingredient. Other products contained substances -- not shown on the label – that could prove harmful, even fatal.

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

Big Pharma Reacts
Not surprisingly, the $13-billion-a-year industry struck back, calling into question New York State’s testing methodology. The objections have an especially hollow ring, particularly since there’s no scientific evidence to support the wild promises from supplement manufacturers’ marketing departments.

Now, an article from Consumer Reports published last month reiterates the often-bogus nature of these products. There are so many millions of Americans getting schnookered – even having their health endangered -- that I wanted to share these latest cautionary comments.

Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., chief medical adviser for Consumer Reports, said “The idea that dietary supplements cure the common cold, restore prostate health, sharpen your mind, or have any other health benefit is dubious at best.”

Processing Removes DNA from Herbs
The most suspect products are those that have been “highly processed,” which describes many of the most popular supplements.

Pieter Cohen, M.D. -- assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an authority on dietary supplements – said:
There may be evidence that some botanicals in their pure state have medicinal effects. But consumers need to realize that what they’re purchasing in a bottle is completely different from what an ancient herbalist would have used, making it extremely unlikely that these highly processed products are going to confer any of the theoretical health benefits—even if they’re made from the plants they say they are.

The New York State attorney general’s office searched for DNA evidence of the products hyped on the labels. But for many of those supplements, the manufacturing process that converts the natural herb into capsules, pills, and tablets is so extreme, so aggressive, that very little – if any -- of the botanical’s DNA is left intact.

More Bad Press for Supplements
Recently, a study funded in part by Consumer Reports reported that about 66% of supplements which the FDA had recalled for containing banned drugs were still easy to find on store shelves, and they still contained the same forbidden chemical or another banned substance that produced a similar effect on the body.

Another recent study examined 150 readily available sex enhancement supplements. Nearly 61% of them contained prescription drugs, experimental drugs, or untested “designer” drugs.

“Spiking” natural botanicals with prescription drugs is unethical and can have lethal consequences when those drugs interact adversely with other drugs or cause dangerous allergic reactions.

So, until these herbal supplements are subject to the same FDA scrutiny as prescription meds, I do what I can: remain doubtful about these products in the absence of scientific evidence, disregard the marketing hype, do the research, and talk to my doctors. 

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