GAO study reveals contaminants in herbal supplements

Today I’m in Orlando, Florida, where I’ll be speaking to the Florida Academy of Family Physicians on this exact issue. And, I find that most of my patients and most physicians are simply unaware of the danger. The New York Times is reporting, “Nearly all of the herbal dietary supplements tested in a Congressional investigation contained trace amounts of lead and other contaminants, and some supplement sellers made illegal claims that their products can cure cancer and other diseases, investigators found.”

Although the “levels of heavy metals – including mercury, cadmium and arsenic – did not exceed thresholds considered dangerous,” almost half of them “contained pesticide residues that appeared to exceed legal limits.”

Notably, “Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said in an interview that he was not concerned about the safety of the supplements tested by the GAO investigators.”

Still, Sharfstein added that “the FDA had increased enforcement actions against supplements spiked with prescription drugs.”

One ginkgo biloba product had labeling claiming it could treat Alzheimer’s disease (no effective treatment yet exists), while a product containing ginseng asserted that it can prevent both diabetes and cancer, the report said.

At least nine misleading health claims were noted in the report. These claims included assurances that the products could cure diseases, such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, investigators said. In one instance, a salesperson claimed that a garlic supplement could replace blood pressure drugs, the Times reported.

Products that purport to treat or relieve disease must go through strict reviews because they are considered drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

HealthFinder reported, “The report findings were to be presented to the Senate … before discussion begins on a major food safety bill that will likely place more controls on food manufacturers.

“How tough the bill will be on supplement makers has been the subject of much lobbying, but the Times noted that some Congressional staff members doubt manufacturers will find it too burdensome.

“‘The oversight of supplements has improved in recent years,’ said Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin), who will preside over Wednesday’s hearing. However, the FDA needs the authority and tools to ensure that dietary supplements are as safe and effective as is widely perceived by the Americans who take them, he told the Times.’

One witness scheduled to testify is a friend of mine. Dr. Tod Cooperman, president of ConsumerLab.com, said supplements with too little of the indicated ingredients and those contaminated with heavy metals are the major problems.

In testing more than 2,000 dietary supplements from some 300 manufacturers, his lab has found that one in four has quality problems, the Times said.

According to the newspaper’s account, the proposed food safety bill could require that supplement manufacturers register annually with the FDA and permit the agency to recall potentially dangerous supplements.

It’s estimated that half of adult Americans take vitamin supplements regularly, and about a quarter take herbal supplements at least occasionally. Annual sales are about $25 billion a year, the Times said.

So, what can you do to be sure that any natural medication (herb, vitamin, or supplement) you take is safe. I recommend you consider reviewing those you take at ConsumerLab. For less than the price of a bottle of vitamins, you can find brands of natural medications that have been independently testing for safety.

I highly recommend the site.