Big-name retailers, big-time supplement scandal

Lately, the New York Times has been as biased and off base about the science of supplements as they are about many other important topics. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day. And it seems like the Times finally stumbled into an awful truth about some big retail store-brand nutritional supplements.

According to a Times’ article published earlier this week, the New York State attorney general’s office sent cease-and-desist letters to Target, Walmart, Walgreens, and GNC after an investigation turned up evidence that the retailers’ store-brand nutritional supplements contain lots of junk…but not much else.

In fact, four out of every five bottles tested didn’t contain any of the herbs indicated on the label. In addition, some bottles that claimed to be wheat-free and gluten-free actually contained wheat and gluten. Or even worse, some contained contaminants that may cause serious and even fatal liver and kidney problems.

Now–these findings probably came as a surprise to many consumers. But hopefully, it didn’t surprise you, as a reader of my Daily Dispatch. I regularly warn you about the low quality that can be typical of popular retail supplements. In fact, it often seems like the more popular the supplement, the lower the quality.

Amazingly, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) uses these kinds of poor-quality supplements in its studies. This practice wastes tax dollars on useless supplements that can’t possibly show any benefit at all. It also misleads the public with low-quality studies using low-quality supplements. (No wonder supplements aren’t as effective as they could…should… and would be.)

And it looks like the problem of poor quality is particularly true with the supplements found on the shelves of big-chain retail stores, like the four pinpointed by the New York State attorney general. Which perhaps isn’t so surprising when you consider the vast scope of factors these chains are dealing with: advertising, slotting fees, and fighting for shelf space with everything from high-profit drugs and cosmetics to detergents and tobacco.

Unfortunately, as the New York investigation just spotlighted, the vast majority of the supplements offered by the four big retail chains mentioned above are a scandal.

The lame stream media quickly caught wind of this scandal. And the New York Times ran a big story about it in Tuesday’s paper.

According to the Times’ article, the GNC “Herbal Plus” line is like a bad joke. And a potentially dangerous one at that. Apparently, some of its products contain powdered legumes as fillers. This class of plants includes peanuts and soybeans–both of which are common, deadly allergens for many people. And what makes this practice even more frightening is that these dangerous fillers aren’t listed on the label.

I always suspected that GNC was largely useless when it came to dietary supplementation. And now we know it.

Of course, GNC is in total denial about the investigation. They still claim they have quality supplements. They must figure it’s better to pay their lawyers than to pay for high quality and truthful products. Unfortunately, I’m sure there are lawyers who agree.

The Target “Up and Up” line of supplements appears to be a 50:50 proposition. Three out of six–including ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort, and valerian root–tested negative for the herbs listed on their labels. But the pills did contain powdered rice, beans, peas, and wild carrots. So they may not help your thinking, mood, or sleep, but maybe you could make soup with the supplements you buy from Target. (Just don’t use your credit card to buy them!)  Yesterday, it seemed Target was trying to distract customers from this disaster by wildly promoting a new line of “adult toys” based on the ridiculous “best seller” Fifty Shades of Grey.  But there are too many  “shades of grey” when it comes to the iffy the supplements they sell.

Walgreens, as I would have expected, made the best response to the investigation. They agreed to remove their “Finest Nutrition” supplements from store shelves not only in New York, but nationwide. It’s a good step to try keeping some credibility going forward.

Walmart promised to look into its “Spring Valley” supplements for “appropriate action.”

Sounds like more smoke and mirrors to me.

The Walmart products showed pathetic results. They either completely lacked the ingredients listed on the label. Or they only contained very small amounts.

As they always say, “you get what you pay for.” And it’s certainly true in this case.

I have never liked Walmart. I try never to set foot in one. In fact, I’m distressed at what they have done to the physical and social landscape of America. It seems as if all they care about is a new twist on an old adage: “a penny saved (in America) is a penny earned (in China).”

I think the country would be a lot better off without Walmart. And now we know that extends to their nutritional supplements as well.

But there’s a bigger part of the story here…and the New York Times’ reporter completely missed it.

More than 20 years ago, in 1993, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. It charged the FDA with the job of regulating dietary supplements for purity and identity. In other words, the FDA is supposed to regulate nutritional supplements so their labels truthfully state what’s actually in (and not in) the products.

Instead, FDA harasses the supplement and food industry when companies try to make disease claims based on science. For example, remember a few years back Diamond Food got in a whole heap of trouble with the FDA when it tried to say eating walnuts benefits your health? Thanks to the FDA, we can’t tell the truth about what scientific studies have already proven about a product’s health benefits.

So, while the FDA lackeys sleep with their bloated federal budgets and books of regulations, the staff at the New York State attorney general’s office actually does something useful.

This story gives us further evidence on how federal government is so useless and, in fact, hazardous to our health. Fortunately, the founding fathers thought to include the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution, if only anyone in Washington would read them.

But when it comes to supplements, never rely on store-brands from big-name retail chains like Target, Walmart, GNC, or Walgreens. You might trust these stores with your soap (maybe), but not with your supplements.

Amazingly, I still find a few smart, educated, and loyal readers of my Daily Dispatch and newsletter who tell me they still buy retail store-brand supplements. And they somehow think they should feel better than they do. Of course, they should!

The supplement industry actually prepares an annual guide on quality. And the worst of the most popular retail supplements typically score only two or three out of 100 in terms of quality.

But there are far better manufacturers that consistently score in the 90s out of 100, including those I use for my Smart Science line of supplements.

What would you rather buy?

I check out and perform due diligence, in person, and on site, to make sure any manufacturer with which we work for my Smart Science formulations is in the very top category of quality procedures, standards and reputation.

If you’re careful about the food you buy, isn’t it just as important to be careful about your supplements? You should only buy honest, ethical supplements with the right ingredients, at the right doses, in the right combinations.

Oh yes, and the supplements should actually contain what they say they contain.

Fortunately, you already know where to get the honest, science-based supplements you need.


  1. “New York Attorney General Targets Supplements at Major Retailers,” New York Times, ( 2/3/2015