Some people swear by dietary supplements, and go so far as to include a daily dose in their regular routine. They seem harmless enough, especially since you can buy them at retail stores like Walgreens, Walmart, GNC, Target, and many more.

Things like Echinacea, gingko biloba, St. John’s wort, ginseng, saw palmetto, and so-called “energy boosters” promise to improve your health thanks to the active ingredient. As it turns out, you may not actually be taking the touted ingredient that’s supposed to be inside the pill.

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A damning investigation by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman reveals that many supplements do not actually include the ingredients they claim to contain, and worse yet, the ingredients list on the label is almost entirely falsified. Schneiderman delivered cease-and-desist orders to stores carrying these products, requiring them to be removed from shelves immediately.

More recently, one chain in particular, GNC, has announced an agreement with the Attorney General. As reported by the New York Times, “The company said it would, in the next 18 months, put in place additional quality-control measures to restore the trust of its customers and set new standards for the rest of the industry.”

GNC will start using DNA testing to ensure the listed ingredients are actually in its self-branded products. A statement from the company claims these measures will “provide consumers even greater confidence in its products.”

Unfortunately, even with this new policy in place, it will likely have little to no impact on the greater industry. If we know anything about Corporate America, it’s this: companies change for the better only when suites of new laws force them to change. And then, like clockwork, they’ll take to their pulpits to condemn “government overreach” and “stifling regulations.” It’s always the same story.

Supplements Are Not (Necessarily) Proven

Even though many supplement manufacturers claim to have scientific proof that their concoction is safe, that’s not necessarily the case. They are not held to the same standards as many traditional food and drug manufacturers. In fact, these manufacturers aren’t even required to offer proof that their products are safe, let alone work as advertised. The only requirement they have is to list their ingredients on the label—a stipulation that is clearly not being followed.

The Food and Drug administration estimates that 70 percent of supplement manufacturers don’t follow the labeling regulations. Past research has even shown that many of these supplements include ingredients that have never been tested in a lab, and may have adverse and dangerous effects on humans.

Pieter Cohen, a supplement expert and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, says: “The combination of no human trials before these products reach store shelves combined with fact we have no systematic way of detecting harm—it’s like throwing a match into a forest during a drought.”

Speaking about GNC’s statement, Cohen continued: “This is a simple statement that what’s on the label will be in the bottle. This is mandated by the law. What’s amazing is that it has taken 20 years for a major retailer to say they will fully respect the law.”

Cohen believes that GNC’s new policy may not have a significant impact on the supplement industry as a whole, since it only relates to their self-branded products. They’ll still be carrying products from other manufacturers that have questionable ingredients and even more questionable ethics. “That one retailer will have better labeling practices does nothing to address the fact that retailers still aren’t required to prove safety or effectiveness.”

Supplements Are Not (Necessarily) Safe

“No consumer product should kill you,” says Cohen. “With supplements, we accept it’s okay to take these pills, even if they might lead to a heart attack or stroke. To me it’s mind-boggling that we accept this.”

And that’s true; no supplement should actively ruin your health, yet there are many documented cases where they do just that. There are many health problems that can be directly linked to supplements, such as liver damage and outright failure, and even the development of hepatitis—discovered by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during an investigation into the weight-loss supplement OxyElite Pro.

It makes you wonder just what issues some of the other unnamed supplements may be causing. Indeed, this ordeal calls into question the validity of all supplements—not just the ones listed here.

During the AG investigation, scientists ran multiple DNA tests on popular supplements from four national retailers. Four out of five products they examined contained ingredients other than what was listed on their labels. Instead, many of the pills were stuffed with substitutes like garlic, rice, and wheat. Talk about a placebo.

More specifically, at GNC, the Attorney General examined six self-branded “Herbal Plus” supplements. Things like ginseng, gingko biloba, St. John’s wort, saw palmetto, and Echinacea were found to contain herbs not listed on the label, and most did not even incorporate the main ingredient advertised.

It’s pretty clear by now that this problem is not isolated to just GNC products. All supplements are questionable, and they will remain so until a more strict form of regulation has been adopted by the entire industry. While GNC’s new policy is an important step forward, it’s still important to remain cautious about what you’re putting in your body.

Image Credit: Flickr (via Creative Commons license)

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Holly Whitman

Holly Whitman is the author behind Only Slightly Biased, a freelance journalist and striving to be one of the best women political writers on the web. Her work has been featured on Yahoo Finance, Fortune, Politicus, Bust and Feministing. You can find her on Twitter at @hollykwhitman.

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