Don’t believe the hype: News stories about supplements miss the mark

The mainstream media is at it again. These days they just can’t seem to get anything right when it comes to dietary supplements. Just take a look at the recent article in The New York Times: “Herbal Supplements Are Often Not What They Seem.” And neither are the media reports.

It’s just another case of half-cocked reporters being set loose to investigate topics they don’t actually understand. But like leading someone wearing sunglasses into a dark room without a flashlight, sometimes they’ll bump into something by accident. And in this article, amid all the nonsense, the reporter eventually stumbled onto one good point.

I’ll get to that shortly, but first I need to point out the misconceptions and inaccuracies I had to wade through before actually finding that point. This particular article starts off putting the wrong foot forward. It starts out by employing the popular wastebasket story line of “unproven” herbal supplements.

If the reporter had bothered to do the research, he would know that there are thousands upon thousands of peer-reviewed scientific articles and dozens of medical textbooks filled with overwhelming evidence of the biological activities and health effects of many popular supplement ingredients.

Perhaps all this “evidence” does not equate to the metaphysical certitude of existential “proof,” but from the very first sentence, the article is grossly misleading.

So should this really be the definitive article we’re using to judge the entire supplement industry in regards to purity?

Let’s go over some of the other details in the article, and I’ll let you be the judge…

Can DNA “fingerprinting” tests cast doubt on supplement purity?

The supposedly groundbreaking finding that this reporter splashed before the eyes of millions of trusting readers has just one problem: It’s based on faulty science. The study being reported used DNA “barcoding” analysis of 44 herbal products and found that about 60 percent of them contained plant species “not listed” on the label. In addition, the study found that 32 percent of the samples had “substituted” products.

Sounds pretty damning, right?

Sure. But only if you don’t understand what DNA fingerprinting is and what it can—and more importantly, can’t—do.

DNA fingerprinting tests, which we first developed in forensic medicine 20 years ago, look at short genetic markers in an organism’s DNA to determine what species it belongs to. Further, even a single DNA strand from a single plant cell can be multiplied by the testing procedure millions of times to make it look like something is there.

But there’s a very important point that needs to be emphasized here: The herbs sold in capsules or tinctures have been processed, heated, and preserved to increase their effectiveness.

All those processes remove the original plant cells with the DNA, while still maintaining the herb’s purified chemical profile. That’s why there is absolutely no reason to think that DNA could even be procured from purified botanical extracts in the first place!

The American Botanical Council (a nonprofit educational organization that I have followed closely since it was founded 25 years ago—and on whose scientific advisory board I have gladly served) immediately responded to this whole debacle.

They pointed out that DNA barcoding technology cannot identify herbs that have been purified or processed. DNA barcoding can only detect actual plant material—not the chemical extracts. And of course, it is not the raw plant cells that provide remedies, but the phytochemicals they produce.

Failure to follow (nonexistent) rules

In this same fumbling New York Times article, a spokesperson for the FDA said that supplement companies are required to follow Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) designed to prevent these “problems,” but that many companies have been “ignoring” them.

What she failed to mention is that after Congress tasked the FDA with establishing GMPs in 1993, they took a full 15 years to do it! So it wasn’t until 2008 that these GMPs even existed. How can you ignore something that isn’t even there? It’s reminds me of a short poem by Ogden Nash:

The other day upon the stair
I met a man who was not there
He was not there again today
I wish that man would go away

Fat chance, when it comes to the FDA.

Of course, good supplement manufacturers were already way ahead of the FDA. They created and followed their own set of GMPs, which turned out to meet or exceed the FDA’s belated guidelines.

Finally, a point I could agree with

After shaking my head at the unscientific nonsense that constituted the majority of the article, I finally found myself nodding in agreement toward the end.

At the conclusion of the article, Dr. David Baker of Stony Brook University Medical Center describes the state of the supplement industry as the “Wild West.” This characterization is actually one with which I agree—and in fact it’s one I have used myself.

While the main point of this New York Times article doesn’t hold water, it’s true that most of the supplement industry IS deficient in science. That lack of science affects both the basis of their formulations and their standards for quality control. Many have strong marketing teams that have learned how to mouth some of the right words and catch phrases. But that does not mean their understanding or actions are consistent with high standards, or science.

For all these reasons, when formulating my supplements I have learned to perform due diligence. I personally go to manufacturing and supplier facilities to perform personal on-site inspections and make sure everything is being produced to my exacting specifications. And as someone who developed laboratory methods for testing biologicals for the NASA Sky Lab and Space Shuttle projects, I know what to look for. In fact, I helped develop some of the analytical instruments and methods used today. These are the analytical chemical methods that really are appropriate to assessing the quality, purity and identity of supplements.

I don’t follow the latest marketing crazes. I always follow the latest science. And that starts with a basic understanding of human biology and nutrition. I stay up on the scientific studies conducted in laboratories worldwide, many outside the US, as well as clinical trials whenever available. And, as a biomedical anthropologist, I also know what to look for among traditional ethnobotanical remedies—and how to recognize a good thing when I see it.

Put that all together with a good dose of common sense and top it off with high standards and ethics, and you have supplements you can trust.

How much of the supplements industry can say all of that?

To learn more about how to recognize a high quality supplement, refer back to my Daily Dispatch from July 9, 2012 “Setting the (gold) standard.” You can read it—and check out the gold-standard formulas in my Smart Science Nutritionals supplement line—on my website,

And as always, remember to take anything that you see in the “lame- stream” media with a grain of salt. If you see something in the “news” that doesn’t make sense, please write me about it. And remember, it’s not in the DNA.