The ‘Supplement’ Illusion

By James Hamblin,
February 4, 2015 Updated: February 4, 2015

Many pills and capsules sold as herbal “supplements” contain little more than powdered rice and house plants, according to a report released Monday by the office of New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman. Many supplements—tested from among leading store-brand products sold at GNC, Target, Walmart, and Walgreens—contain no plant substance of any kind at all.

Cease-and-desist letters sent to the retailers yesterday demand removal of echinacea, ginseng, St. John’s Wort, garlic, saw palmetto, and gingko biloba  from store shelves. “Contamination, substitution, and falsely labeling herbal products constitute deceptive business practices and, more importantly, present considerable health risks,” the attorney general’s letters read. The brands named include Finest Nutrition, Spring Valley, Up & Up, and Herbal Plus.

At Walmart, for example, the agency found the following:

  • Gingko biloba:  Contained no ginko biloba. Did contain rice, mustard, wheat, and radish.
  • St. John’s wort: Contained no St. John’s wort. Did contain garlic, rice, and “a tropical root crop.”
  • Ginseng: Contained no ginseng. Did contain wheat, rice, and citrus species.
  • Garlic: One of 15 tests was positive for a small amount of garlic. Most of the genetic material, though, was from rice, palm, and wheat.
  • Echinacea: Contained no echinacea, and no genetic material of any sort.
  • Saw palmetto: Contained no saw palmetto.


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*Image of “capsules” via Shutterstock