Are Herbal Supplements Bogus?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Uncategorized

How Can You Be Sure You Are Getting What You Paid For?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

herbal supplementsTwo weeks ago the headlines claimed that most supplements containing grape seed extract were bogus. Just last week the New York Attorney General claimed that four of the largest retailers in the state were selling bogus herbal supplements.

We already knew that it is “buyer beware” in the food supplement industry. Is it really this bad? Are most herbal supplements a waste of money? How can we be sure that we are getting our money’s worth when we buy herbal supplements?

Do Herbal Supplements Work?

Supplements Containing Grape Seed Extract

grape seed supplementThe headlines about supplements containing grape seed extract were based on a recent study by botanical and medicinal chemistry experts at Rutgers University (Villani et al, Food Chemistry, 170, 271-280, 2015). They obtained 21 commercially available supplements containing grape seed extract from vitamin supplement retailers, supermarkets and online vendors.

The scientists used HPLC/UV/MS to analyze the supplements for the polyphenols that should be found in authentic grape seed extracts. (HPLC/UV/MS is an analytic method that is the gold standard for identifying and quantifying the chemical composition of the final product. However, it is a very expensive procedure, and many manufacturers do not use it.)

The results of their analysis were quite alarming.

  • Only 6 of the 21 products tested had the specific polyphenols found in authentic grape seed extract.
  • 9 of the samples had less than 15% of the polyphenols found in grape seed extract.
  • 5 of the samples had less than 3% of the polyphenols found in grape seed extract.
  • One of the samples had no detectable grape seed extract
  • 9 of the samples contained polyphenols that were characteristic of peanut skin extracts rather than grape seed extract. Peanut skin extract is a much cheaper source of polyphenols than grape seed extract. Substitution of peanut skin extract for grape seed extract is a concern because:
    • While polyphenols from peanut skin extract have health benefits, they have not been tested. There is currently no clinical evidence that they are beneficial.
    • There is no label information on the products indicating that peanuts were used in their manufacture. This could be a concern for people with peanut allergies.
  • 3 of the samples contained polyphenols that were more characteristic of pine bark extract than grape seed extract. Again this is a concern because that particular blend of polyphenols has not been shown to provide the same health benefits as grape seed extract.

The authors concluded that “adulteration of grape seed extract in commercial preparations is a significant problem.” They suggested that substitution of much cheaper polyphenol sources such as peanut skin extract or pine bark extract offered significant “economic gain” to the manufacturers.

They went on to say “due to reliance of inferior…assays [or complete lack of quality control assays in some cases] across the value chain, adulteration can go undetected by others in the distribution chain, such as those involved in distribution, packaging, wholesale and retail sales.”

To put that in lay terms it means that suppliers and manufacturers often cheat by substituting cheaper polyphenol sources, primarily for financial gain. Furthermore, because most companies don’t use high cost quality control assays such as HPLC/UV/MS they actually have no idea whether their products actually contain grape seed extract or not.

Supplements Containing Ginko Biloba, St. John’s Wort, Ginseng & Echinacea

The recent headlines about ginko biloba, St. John’s wort, ginseng, echinacea and other herbal products arose from an announcement by the New York Attorney General the he had just ordered GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreens to take a number of herbal supplements off their shelves because almost 80% of them didn’t contain the ingredients listed on the label or contained non-listed ingredients.

Specifically, the Attorney General claimed that:

  • The ginko biloba and St. John’s wort supplements that they tested from those stores did not test positive for active ingredients.
  • Ginseng and Echinacea supplements also failed their tests.
  • In some cases the supplements contained no organic material. They contained sand instead of active ingredients.

new york attorney generalThe Attorney General claimed that these and other herbal supplements they tested were bogus. Even worse, they were deceptive and could endanger people’s health. For example, people generally use St. John’s wort to relieve depression. If the supplement is bogus, they are not just wasting money. Their mental health is also being compromised.

While the Attorney General’s announcement is alarming, it is also a bit misleading. It is based on an analytic method called “DNA barcoding”. In simple terms, DNA barcoding means that DNA is extracted from the sample and the genetic information in that DNA is compared with the genetic information characteristic of the herbal ingredient.

DNA barcoding is an important analytic test that every manufacturer should use to validate the identity of their herbal raw ingredients. However, DNA is often removed in the process of preparing an herbal extract, so DNA barcoding is an inappropriate assay to use for validating the quality of the finished product. Assays such as the HPLC/UV/MS are more appropriate or the final product.

In short, the Attorney General identified a potential problem with the herbal supplement industry, but further tests are required before we know how significant the problem actually is. The most troubling aspect of the whole incident is that some of the retailers had not run their own quality controls on the products, so they actually had no idea whether the products they were selling were bogus or not.

How Can you Make Sure the Supplements you Buy Aren’t Bogus?

Now that you know that many herbal supplements may be bogus, how do you protect yourself? How do you make sure that you are not wasting your money and jeopardizing your health?

The answer is actually pretty simply.

  • Ignore the slick marketing.
  • Don’t base your decision on price alone.
  • Do your research. Only choose reputable companies that do quality controls on both the raw ingredients and the finished product.

The Bottom Line

Herbal supplements have been in the headlines lately, and the news isn’t good.

  • One study (Villani et al, Food Chemistry, 170, 271-280, 2015) reported that only 6 out of 21 supplements listing grape seed extract on their label actually contained pure grape seed extract. The rest were adulterated with less expensive polyphenol sources which may not provide the same health benefits, such as peanut skin extracts and pine bark extracts. That report was based on HPL/UV/MS, which is the gold standard of quality controls assays for herbal supplements.
  • Two weeks later the New York Attorney General ordered GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreens to stop selling herbal supplements containing ginko biloba, St. John’s wort, ginseng, echinacea and other herbal ingredients. He claimed that 80% of the supplements tested didn’t contain the ingredients on the label and some contained sand instead of any active ingredients. His claim was based on DNA barcoding, an assay that is appropriate for identifying the herbs used in manufacturing the supplements, but is not valid for determining whether the finished product contains extracts prepared from those herbs. In short the Attorney General’s report identified a potential problem with those supplements, but further tests will be required to determine how significant that problem is.
  • Both reports serve to remind us that many supplement manufacturers fail to run adequate quality control tests on their products. Neither they nor you know whether their products actually contain any active ingredients. Your best bet is to choose food supplement companies that run appropriate quality controls on both their raw ingredients and on their final products.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Trackback from your site.

Leave a comment

Recent Videos From Dr. Steve Chaney

READ THE ARTICLE
READ THE ARTICLE

Latest Article

Should You Avoid Sugar Completely?

Posted October 24, 2017 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is It The Sugar, Or Is It The Food?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Should we avoid sugar completely?  Almost every expert agrees that Americans should cut down on the amount of sugar we are consuming. However, for some people this has become a “sugar phobia”. They have sworn that “sugar shall never touch their lips”. Not only do they avoid sugar sweetened sodas and junk food, but they also have become avid label readers. They scour the label of every food they see and reject foods they find any form of sugar listed as an ingredient. Is this degree of sugar avoidance justified?

 

Should We Avoid Sugar to Keep it From Killing Us?

 

Let me add some perspective:

  • If you just take studies about the dangers of sugar at face value, sugar does, indeed, look dangerous. Excess sugar consumption is associated with increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. However, when you look a little closer, you find that most of these studies have been done by looking at the correlation of each of these conditions with sugar sweetened beverage consumption (sodas and fruit juices).

A few studies have looked at the correlation of obesity and disease with total “added sugar” consumption. However, 71.6% of added sugar in the American diet comes from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food. None of the studies have looked at the sugar from healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. That’s because there is ample evidence that these foods decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

  • For example, if apples had a nutrition label, it would list 16 grams of sugar in a medium 80 calorie apple, which corresponds to about 80% of the calories in that apple. The sugar in an apple is about the same proportion of fructose and glucose found in high fructose corn syrup. Apples are not unique. The nutrition label would read about the same on most other fruits. Does that mean you should avoid sugar from all fruits? I think not.

Avoid Sugar or Avoid Certain Foods

 

avoid sugar from junk foodsThe obvious question is: “Why are the same sugars, in about the same amounts, unhealthy in sodas and healthy in fruits?” Let’s go back to those studies I just mentioned—the ones that are often used to vilify sugars. They are all association studies, the association of sugar intake with obesity and various diseases.

The weakness of association studies is the association could be with something else that is tightly correlated with the variable (sugar intake) that you are measuring. Could it be the food that is the problem, not the sugar?

If we look at healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) they are chock full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and (sometimes) protein. Fiber and protein slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. As a result, blood sugar levels rise slowly and are sustained at relatively low levels for a substantial period of time.

In sodas there is nothing to slow the absorption of blood sugar. You get rapid rise in blood sugar followed by an equally rapid fall. The same is true of junk foods consisting primarily of sugar, refined flour and/or fat.  Avoid sugar from those types of foods.

Another consideration is something called caloric density. Here is a simple analogy. I used to explain the concept of caloric density to medical students in my teaching days. There are about the same number of calories in a 2-ounce candy bar and a pound of apples (around 278 in the 2-ounce candy bar and 237 in a pound of apples). You can eat a 2-ounce candy bar and still be hungry. If you eat a pound of apples you are done for a while. In this example, the 2-ounce candy bar had a high caloric density (a lot of calories in a small package). Perhaps a more familiar terminology would be the candy bar was just empty calories.

Are Sodas and Junk Foods Killing Us?

avoid sugar from candyPutting all that together, you can start to understand why the foods the sugars are in are more important than the sugars themselves. When you consume sugars in the form of sugar sweetened beverages or sugary junk foods, your appetite increases. We don’t know for sure whether it is the intense sweetness of those foods, the rapid increase and fall in blood sugar, or the high caloric density (lots of calories ina small package) that makes us hungrier. It doesn’t matter. We crave more food, and it isn’t usually fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates we crave. It’s more junk. That sets in motion a predictable sequence of events.

  • We overeat. Those excess calories are stored as fat and we become obese. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you our fat stores come from carbohydrates alone. That is incorrect. All excess calories, whether from protein, fat, or carbohydrate, are stored as fat.]
  • It’s not just the fat you can see (belly fat) that is the problem. Some of that fat builds up in our liver and muscles. This sets up an unfortunate sequence of metabolic events.
  • The fat stores release inflammatory cytokines into our bloodstream. That causes inflammation. Inflammation increases the risk of many diseases including heart disease and cancer.
  • The fat stores also cause our cells to become resistant to insulin. That reduces the ability of our cells to take up glucose, which leads to hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you carbohydrates cause type 2 diabetes. That is also incorrect. It is our fat stores that cause insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Our fat stores come from all excess calories, not just excess calories from carbohydrates.]
  • Insulin resistance also causes the liver to overproduce cholesterol and triglycerides and pump them into the bloodstream. That increases the risk of heart disease.
  • Sugar sweetened beverages and sugary junk foods also displace healthier foods from our diet. That leads to potential nutrient shortfalls that can increase our risk of many diseases.

However, none of this has to happen. The one thing that every successful diet has in common is the elimination of sodas, junk foods, fast foods and convenience foods. You should avoid sugar from those foods as much as possible. Once you eliminate those from your diet,you significantly enhance your chances of being at a healthy weight and being healthy long term.

 

What About Protein Supplements And Similar Foods?

Of course, the dilemma is what you, as an intrepid label reader, should do about protein supplements, meal replacement bars, or snack bars. They are supposed to be healthy, but the label lists one or more sugars. Even worse, the sugar content is higher than your favorite health guru recommends.  So, should you avoid sugar from supplements and the like?

In this case, a more useful concept is glycemic index, which is a measure of the effect of the food on your blood sugar levels. Healthy foods like apples may have a high sugar content, but they havea low glycemic index.

avoid sugar and consume protein to slow absorbptionThe same is true for the protein supplements and bars you are considering. Rather than looking at the sugar content, you should be looking for the term “low glycemic” on the label. That means there is enough fiber and protein in the food to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and stabilize your blood sugar levels.

What Does This Mean For You?

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should work on ways to avoid sugar or reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners. I have warned about the dangers of artificial sweeteners previously.

We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. For example, some Starbucks drinks are mostly sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

So we don’t have to avoid sugar completely, but we should reduce sugar from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food.

 

The Bottom Line

 

We need to keep warnings about the dangers of sugar in perspective:

  • The studies showing that sugar consumption leads to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease have all been done with sodas and junk foods.
  • Many fruits have just as much sugar as a soda. They also contain about the same proportion of fructose and glucose as high fructose corn syrup. Yet we know fruits are good for us.
  • Diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains decrease our risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • That is because the sugar in whole foods is generally present along with fiber and protein, which slows the absorption of sugar and prevents the blood sugar spikes we get with sodas and junk foods.
  • In the case of prepared foods like protein supplements, you should look for “low glycemic” on the label rather than sugar content. Low glycemic means that there is enough fiber and protein in the product to slow the absorption of sugar and prevent blood sugar spikes.
  • Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should all work on ways to avoid sugar from junk foods or to reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners.
  • We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

UA-43257393-1