The Ingredient Guessing Game for Herbal Supplements

Anyone who has lived on an institutional campus is familiar with the term “mystery meat.” It refers to a slab of flesh-based protein of uncertain origin and added ingredients. A recent study in the British journal BMC Medicine invites the application of the adjective “mysterious” to the composition of some herbal supplements.

“Many herbal supplements on the market contain ingredients that are not listed on their labels, including some contaminants and fillers,” according the

In the BMC report, nearly 6 in 10 supplements tested contained ingredients that weren’t listed in on their labels or in the product packaging.

We’ve written before about the unknown ingredients in energy drinks, and the dangers they can pose, especially to heart health. We’ve also covered supplements that were tainted with dangerous drugs.

As explained on AboutLawsuits, herbal supplements are one of the fastest growing segments of the alternative medicine market. The site says that more than 29,000 different herbal substances are sold as vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements.

Because dietary supplements are not defined as drugs, they’re not regulated by the FDA, so their safety and effectiveness aren’t known before products are available for sale. The feds intervene only if a product contains an entirely new ingredient, or if it has been linked to health problems or serious side effects.

In the case of a new ingredient, it’s only reviewed, not approved, for safety or effectiveness. The

FDA is authorized to pull a product from the shelves only if it is deemed to be unsafe or if the manufacturer made false or misleading claims about its powers. That means herbal supplement manufacturers essentially monitor themselves, and consumers have to hope for the best.

In the BMC study, 44 products available through by 12 different companies in the U.S. and Canada were analyzed. Through a painstaking plant-DNA process, researchers authenticated nearly half of the products, but they found that substitutions were used in 30 of the 44 products tested. Most of the substitutions were poor quality and diluted the effectiveness or usefulness of the herbal supplement.

More than 1 in 5 contained contaminants or fillers (soybean, rice, wheat), and if you suffer from gluten sensitivity or certain allergies, this is not good news. Other contaminants could pose who-knows-what sort of serious health risks-some plants are toxic and some interact negatively with other ingredients or medications.

Only two of the 12 companies sampled offered products without substitutions, contaminants or fillers. Alas, the study does not name the companies selling either pure or mystery meds.

We always advise approaching supplements with a critical, even dubious, eye, not only because they might pose unseen risks, but because they have a slim record of proven effectiveness. Learn more from our newsletter, “Eat. Drink and Be Wary: The Truth About Diet Supplements and Sports Drinks.”

Patrick Malone & Associates, P.C. listed in Best Lawyers Rated by Super Lawyers Patrick A. Malone
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