Herbal Supplements Often Are Not What They Seem To Be

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But controlling the supplement industry is a particular challenge. The FDA requires companies to test the products they sell to make sure they are safe. But the system basically works on the code of honor. Unlike prescription drugs, supplements are generally considered safe until proven guilty.

Under a 1994 law, they can be sold and marketed with little regulatory oversight, and they are typically only removed from shelves after serious injury complaints. The FDA audits a small number of companies, but even industry officials say more oversight is needed.

“The regulations are very appropriate and rigorous,” said Duffy MacKay of Advice for responsible nutrition, a trade group in the supplement industry. “But we need a strong regulator who enforces the full force of the law. FDA resources are limited, and therefore enforcement has not always been as rigorous as it could be. “

FDA spokesperson Shelly Burgess said companies were required to adhere to a set of good manufacturing practices designed to prevent adulteration, but many ignored the rules.

“Unfortunately, we see a very high percentage – around 70% – of corporate non-compliance,” she said, “and we are very active in taking enforcement action against such violations.”

DNA bar coding was developed over a decade ago at the University of Guelph. Instead of sequencing entire genomes, scientists realized they could look at genes in a standardized region of each genome to identify species of plants and animals. These short sequences can be quickly scanned – much like barcodes on items in a supermarket – and compared to others in an electronic database. An electronic reference library in Guelph, called the International Barcode of Life Project, contains over 2.6 million barcode records for nearly 200,000 species of plants and animals.

The test technique is not foolproof. It can identify the substances in a supplement, but it cannot determine their potency. And because the technology relies on DNA detection, it may not be able to identify concentrated chemical extracts that do not contain genetic material, or products in which the material has been destroyed by heat and the treatment.


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