Whassup’ with supplements?

9431893_l_Medicine bottle_resizedOver the course of the last few weeks, herbal supplements sold around the country have come under fire after testing revealed certain brands were adulterated and mislabeled, meaning they do not contain the ingredients that are stated on their labels.

DNA barcoding, a technique for characterizing species of organisms using a short DNA sequence from a standard and agreed-upon position in the genome, showed that 79% of the supplements tested either did not contain the stated ingredient(s), or were contaminated by other filler materials such as rice and wheat, to which some people are allergic.

A recent article states that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says lax oversight of supplements can have serious public health consequences, noting a 2013 hepatitis outbreak traced to a tainted diet supplement and the death of a baby at a Connecticut hospital after doctors gave the child a probiotic supplement later found to be contaminated with yeast.

The investigation ordered by Schneiderman looked into numerous supplements, including Echinacea, ginseng, St. John’s wort, garlic, ginkgo biloba and saw palmetto, and discovered they were contaminated with substances including rice, beans, pine, citrus, asparagus, primrose, wheat, houseplant and wild carrot. In many cases, unlisted contaminants were the only plant material found in the product samples. In fact, at the University of Guelph, the article states that researchers found that a third of 44 supplements tested contained no trace of the claimed plant(s) on the label.

However, the dietary supplement industry takes issue with DNA testing and some consumer advocacy groups say the method by itself is inadequate.

“There’s no problem with DNA barcoding as a science; however, it should be used appropriately. It has limitations,” Nandakumara Sarma, director of dietary supplements for US Pharmacopeia, said in another article.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates finished dietary supplement products and dietary ingredients, the agency does not require herbal supplements to go through the same verification processes as conventional foods and drug products to ensure that the products are appropriately labeled and safe for consumers.

Companies are required to follow an established set of manufacturing practices however that was established in 1994 through the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). But as stated in another recent article, this act also allows companies to attach general health claims to their products without providing evidence of their effectiveness and makes it difficult for government to police the industry.

John Bradley, the editor in chief of Nutrition Business Journal, wrote in an editorial last week that this system is not working and that the best way forward for the nutritional supplements industry will be to accept at least a bit more oversight.

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