The Danger of Fake Supplements

Did You Know…that many herbal supplements, especially ones at major retailers, aren’t really what you think they are?

Natural health experts have been sounding the alarm on fake supplements for years, and mainstream regulatory agencies are finally catching on.

Two recent studies expose some vastly subpar herbal supplements for what they really are—worthless fakes that in many instances may exacerbate the very conditions you are trying to treat.

Major Retailers Under Fire for Fake Supplements 

The New York Times recently ran an exposé on GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart.  New York State authorities investigated top-selling herbal supplements sold by these retailers and found that many contained none of the herbs listed on the labels.  Instead, these fake supplements were filled with powdered vegetables, houseplants, and other allergenic ingredients.

Walgreen’s gingko biloba had zero gingko and was instead powdered radish, houseplants, and wheat… even though the label claimed it was gluten and wheat free!

3 out of 6 herbal supplements at Target (St. John’s Wort, gingko biloba, and valerian root) were made of powdered rice, beans, peas, and carrots… and no herbs!

Walgreen’s ginseng pills were nothing more than garlic and rice.

GNC supplements contained some of the labeled ingredients, but were also packed with unlabeled fillers such as powdered legumes, which spark allergic reactions


All four retailers have been issued cease-and-desist letters and instructed to outline the procedures they use to verify the ingredients in their herbal supplements.

This is the first time—and long overdue—that major retail and drugstore manufacturers have been held accountable for misleading marketing and mislabeled products.

What’s Really in Your Gingko Biloba? 

Additional shocking research comes from Dr. Damon Little, Associate Curator of Bioinformatics in the Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics at The New York Botanical Garden.  Dr. Little developed a DNA mini-barcoding assay and used it to test the authenticity of popular brands of gingko biloba, the memory-boosting herbal supplement.  Published in the journal Genome, Little’s research showed that 16.4% of gingko supplements contained no gingko.

In order to be effective, the primary active components of ginkgo biloba should contain a minimum of 24% flavonol glycosides—such as that found in Supreme Brain Nutrition.

We don’t know if suppliers inaccurately identified the materials used in their products or used faulty manufacturing processes or if they intentionally switched out the herb for less expensive substitutes.  Little explains, “For the supplements in which I found no evidence of ginkgo, I cannot be sure if that is because the DNA was destroyed (for example by drying at very high temperatures) or if the samples simply do not contain any ginkgo.”

Previous research showed that only 75% of black cohosh pills were labeled correctly, and only 85% of saw palmetto capsules actually contained saw palmetto.

The danger of fake supplements extends far beyond the failure to live up to their purported health benefits.  Mislabeled herbal pills can be toxic, either alone or in combination with other drugs. As more and more evidence brings to light the widespread mislabeling of herbal products, both suppliers and consumers are urged to do due diligence and check the accuracy of herbal supplements.  Dr. Little’s assay offers an easy way for supplement manufacturers to verify that supplements sold do indeed contain the ingredients listed on their product labels.

Choose Reputable Companies

Finally, choose only the best reputed manufacturers and brands for your supplement needs—companies that are willing to stand 100% behind their products, ingredients, and manufacturing methods.

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