20/20: Warnings About Herbal Supplements

As Americans seek ways to stay healthy, more and more are downing herbal supplements, vitamins and minerals in record numbers. About half of us take them, spending about $15 billion a year on them — twice what we spent just five years ago.

Nutritional supplements, in particular, have crossed over from the shelves at the health food stores into supermarkets, drugstores, and discount stores. Even entire chains, like GNC and Vitamin Shoppe, are built around them.

But as 20/20’s Arnold Diaz reports, some believe the herbal explosion is a double-edged sword. While on one side, many of the products are effective and can improve a person’s life, new laboratory tests obtained by 20/20 reveal that some products may have much less of the key ingredients than they list on the label. And as manufacturers rush into lucrative new markets, critics argue there are not enough safety nets.

If you pick up a bottle of prescription or over-the-counter medication, you can be pretty sure it’s been through lots of testing and government scrutiny before it gets in your hands. But with nutritional supplements, there are no guarantees. That’s because herbals, vitamins and minerals are regulated like food and their manufacturers do not have to prove their products are safe or effective. And the government has taken a hands-off approach when it comes to making sure that what is listed on the label is what’s really in the bottle.

Lab Tests Yield Surprising Results

Dr. Tod Cooperman, who runs a company that analyzes supplements called Consumerlab.com, believes consumers are in the dark about what’s in the supplements. “There’s no way for a consumer to know what’s in a pill,” he tells 20/20. “The only way to know what is inside … is to test them.”

20/20 paid Consumerlab.com for a detailed analysis of tests it had done on 100 bottles of some popular herbal supplements. The results revealed one in four of the bottles did not have what the manufacturer claimed on the label.

Consumerlab.com tested chondroitin products — supplements used by thousands of arthritis sufferers — and found that eight of the 15 brands did not have the amount of chondroitin listed on the label. In fact, four bottles had less than 10 percent of the chondroitin they claimed to have. The products ranged from $6 to $55 per bottle.

Chondroitin manufacturers that responded to 20/20 say their tests show no problem with their products. They say scientists disagree over the best way to test chondroitin and that results from different labs can vary substantially.

Tests of a new supplement called sam-e — which claims to improve mood and relieve joint pain — revealed that six out of the 13 products tested had less than half the sam-e they listed on the label. One product had almost no sam-e at all.

In response, two manufacturers blamed the problem on a labeling mistake. One wrote, “We simply goofed when the label was made for this batch.”

Finally, Consumerlab.com tested products containing gingseng, a popular pick-me-up. Their results showed that five out of 21 products have less ginseng than what their labels claimed. And the lab also found eight bottles contained quintozene, a pesticide sometimes sprayed on ginseng when it’s growing.

The manufacturers say the tested samples must have been older products because now they only use “certified quintozene-free” materials.

Consumerlab.com sells its seal of approval to products that pass its tests. Some companies argue this is a conflict of interest, and they also object to the fact that the company uses only one bottle of each brand it tests. But the company stands by the accuracy of its results.

Whether it’s ginseng, sam-e or chondroitin, Consumerlab.com says its test results are a snapshot of an industry with obvious problems. “Until someone is actually out there checking, there’s not a huge incentive to fix the problem,” says Cooperman.

But the manufacturers says there’s no problem. David Seckman, head of the National Nutritional Foods Association, says the trade group and the manufacturers run programs that encourage quality control. “We think that the industry should follow good manufacturing practices,” he says.

Concerns Over Drug Interactions It’s bad enough that you may be getting ripped off if you buy supplements that do not contain what they list on their labels. But even worse, you may be risking your health. As Joe and Terri Graedon have been warning listeners about for years on their weekly radio program, The People’s Pharmacy, taking supplements with certain medications can result in potentially dangerous interactions that the labels do not always warn you about.

“People are just sort of popping down pills to relieve depression and arthritis and they don’t know what they’re getting into,” Joe Graedon says. “But these are chemicals. They’re just like drugs. In the wrong combination they can cause complications just like drugs.”

Anesthesiologists are now warning patients to stop taking herbal supplements two weeks before surgery.

The Graedons, who are strong advocates of herbal medicines, believe there’s a simple solution for the problems above — better labeling standards to protect consumers and to ensure they’re getting what they paid for.