By Dov Michaeli

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD

An article published in the October 11, 2013 issue of BMC Journal (BMC Medicine 2013, 11:222) should deal a fatal blow to an industry rife with fraud: the food supplements. But will it? Read on.

A number of small studies conducted in recent years have suggested a sizable percentage of herbal products are not what they purport to be. These studies had several problems. They were small, they used techniques that could make their conclusions open to criticism by sworn skeptics, and most importantly they ran smack against a multibillion industry and Senator Orrin Hatch, their mouthpiece in Washington.

With $5 billion in annual sales, what’s a few millions to buy influence with some key congressmen? There are 29,000 herbal medicines, and the number keeps growing. The industry has become politically “too big to fail” in the sense that a very large proportion of the American people is using one or more of these nostrums, many thousands of people directly or indirectly benefit from it economically,and the propaganda machine against the “nanny state” is in full throttle.

The article in the BMC journal should shake the foundations of the supplement industry. Unlike previous studies, the investigators used a DNA technique called barcoding which uses selected DNA sequences to uniquely identify any organism of interest, be it plant, animal, bacterial, or viral. Basically the same principle used in uniquely identifying any item you buy in the store.

The researchers selected popular medicinal herbs, and then randomly bought different brands of those products from stores and outlets in Canada and the United States. In all, they tested 44 bottles of popular supplements sold by 12 companies. They found that many were not what they claimed to be, and that pills labeled as popular herbs were often diluted — or replaced entirely — by cheap fillers like soybean, wheat and rice. Among the supplements tested was echinacea that is supposed to fight off colds, but instead what you got is ground up Parthenium hysterophorus, a bitter-tasting weed (so it must be good for you) and rashes, nausea and explosive flatulence.

The beauty of paper is that the results are incontrovertible -they are based on DNA. So what is the industry’s response? The New York Times reports that “Stefan Gafner, the Chief Science Officer at the American Botanical Council, a nonprofit group that promotes the use of herbal supplements, said the study was flawed, in part because the barcoding technology it used could not always identify herbs that have been purified and highly processed“. Echoes of another fake scientific group, The Tobacco Reeaerch Council, in their rear-guard tactic of raising doubt about the validity of the science. Except that the hired guns of the tobacco industry had a lot more chutzpah than Dr. Garner. “Over all, I would agree that quality control is an issue in the herbal industry,” Dr. Gafner said. “But I think that what’s represented here is overblown. I don’t think it’s as bad as it looks according to this study.” Clever! This implies that these were just manufacturing errors. The fact that so many products contained mostly fillers (or worse)  tells me that no error is involved -it was deliberate fraud. Furthermore, the real issue is not so much manufacturing quality control; the issue is the quality of the evidence  that those nostrums do what they claim they do.

You might ask, why isn’t the industry regulated just like any drug if they purport to medicinal benefits? They get away with it because Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah defanged FDA oversight of this industry in 1994.  In fact, he blocked any subsequent attempts to tame the Wild West state of the industry by threatening to block all funding for the FDA. Not to belabor the point, but his son, Scott Hatch, is raking in millions of dollars as a lobbyist for the industry. Such is the power of one senator from Utah, and his son, in our democracy. the Founding Fathers would probably not be pleased with the misshapen mutant their creation has become.

Orrin Hatch, the supplement industry senator.

Orrin Hatch, the supplement industry senator.