The New York Attorney General, Herbs, and You

Health Tips / The New York Attorney General, Herbs, and You

If you’ve lived in the US for longer than a few weeks, you know there’s just something about attorneys general and their endless quest for publicity. After all, jailing petty criminals must become tedious and if you’ve got any political ambition at all you need to set your sights higher.

Seeing the words “attorney general” this week, I recalled a recent article about how private lawyers are creating huge paychecks for themselves by encouraging state attorneys general to create an atmosphere of high-dollar litigation much like product liability, class action efforts.

And so it was with the words “ambition” and “litigation” uppermost in my mind that I began reading that the New York Attorney General had sent a cease and desist notification to the nation’s largest nutritional supplement retailers (GNC, Walmart, Walgreens, Target) ordering them to pull from their shelves six herbs: ginseng, St. John’s wort, gingko biloba, Echinacea, garlic, saw palmetto, and valerian. This made the front page of every media outlet that has a front page.

As for the potential class action suits–wow. Walmart? Walgreens? The numbers leave you breathless.

My aunt calls from Florida and investigations begin

Since more than half of all Americans take supplements daily, I’m guessing there were a great many unswallowed pills in US homes following the report. My elderly aunt in Florida, long convinced that her GNC herbs were responsible for keeping her alive for the past three decades (she’s now 92), threw out everything labeled GNC and called me to say since she hadn’t been feeling well, could it be the contaminated herbs?

The targeted retailers, correctly sensing a backlash from the bowels of hell, promised full investigations into their suppliers. Palming off capsules of barn droppings as an energizing ginseng or immune-stimulating Echinacea is better known as serious, dangerous consumer fraud. A few years ago, the Chinese government executed its top drug and herb regulator for taking bribes.

Movie buffs may recall that in the film “The Third Man” Harry Lime came to a bad end when it was discovered he’d been selling fake penicillin and children had been dying of meningitis.

Fake anything (drugs, herbs, paintings, money) is serious business. But as I carefully read the cease and desist letter, I actually felt my skeptical hackles rising. Something seemed wrong about this.

Suspect testing procedures

Actually, several things seemed wrong.

  1. Although the herbs came from different suppliers, if you look at a single herb such as gingko biloba as an example, you realize not a single tested sample contained any gingko biloba at all. That shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that four or five different manufacturers are all separately replacing their gingko with the same junk, but rather that something might be wrong with the test itself.
  2. The test used by the attorney general is called DNA bar coding, a form of genetic “fingerprint” identification actually quite similar to bar coding in a checkout line. When a capsule was selected for testing, the technology would single out a unique band of DNA and compare it to others in an electronic database. However, this form of testing doesn’t take into account any alteration in DNA that might occur during the preparation of the final product.
  3. The attorney general based his cease and desist letters solely on the findings from a single laboratory company that used only this DNA technique. There were no controls, meaning the lab didn’t check its results against a known pure sample of gingko.
  4. My real concern here is with the adulterants (stuff in the capsule that was not gingko), although this, too, could be a lab error. The adulterant issue is one that the American Botanical Council has been vigorously tackling.

In fact, what the attorney general ought to have done, although it would have cost him his spot on the nightly news, is to take his findings to the American Botanical Council and say, “We’ve got a serious issue here.”

He might have mentioned something about the flaws of DNA barcoding and noted that a variety of other, well-established tests should have been used as controls. Click here for more detail. He also would have learned that the issue of adulterated products is being taken very seriously by manufacturers, natural medicine schools, and trade associations, which have come together to guarantee the safest possible products to the public.

So what should you do?

First, keep in mind that the real winner in this hullaballoo is Big Pharma. Conventional physicians around the country, citing this event, will likely now actively discourage you from using nutritional supplements, especially herbs. You patients who do stick to your guns about your faith in herbal medicine might point out that Big Pharma has always been a huge donor and major lobbyist in the offices of the attorneys general and thus at this point you’re not going to rush to judgment.

My suggestion going forward is this: much like paint, tires, and dental floss, when it comes to purchasing herbs and other nutritional supplements, you get what you pay for.

The products selected for the WholeHealth Chicago Apothecary are chosen by our three physicians (Drs. Kelley and Donigan and me), our herbalist Seanna Tully and nutritionist Marla Feingold. The Chinese herbs are selected by acupuncturist/herbalist Mari Stecker.

We review the products and carefully evaluate each company’s safety protocols. Many of us have actually visited the suppliers’ herb farms and manufacturing facilities. Take a moment and look how one, Herb Pharm, makes its products.

In the wake of last week’s news, the two largest companies (Integrative Therapeutics and Metagenics) providing what are called pharmaceutical-grade supplements primarily to physicians immediately released position papers, both of which are worth reading.

Pharmaceutical grade is the top quality grade, meaning the purity, dissolvability, and absorption of the supplements meet the highest regulatory standards, verified by an outside party. Pharmaceutical-grade supplements may be available without a prescription but are typically sold only by licensed health care practitioners.

Lower down the quality chain are “medical grade,” “nutritional grade” (likely the Walmart, GNC group), and agricultural grade (for livestock). We’ve been recommending Integrative Therapeutics and Metagenics products for more than two decades and stand behind them completely. Other super-high quality names include Thorne Research, XYMOGEN, Pure Encapsulations, Allergy Research Group, and Ortho Molecular Products.

Ultimately, both sides–the attorney general of New York and the supplement industry–raise serious but important issues. Since it’s your health and your family’s that’s at stake, you absolutely want the best quality. If the withdrawn capsules contain dried and powdered crabgrass, you need to know. If, on the other hand, you’re advised by your doctor to abandon your herbs and stick with FDA pharmaceuticals, side effects and all, you want other realistic options.

Purchase quality nutraceuticals, remembering Buttercup’s song from H.M.S. Pinafore:

“Things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream…”

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD