My favorite news story of the week, herbal supplements don’t contain anything at all apparently. Why should we be surprised that big placebo is selling placebos?

The authorities said they had conducted tests on top-selling store brands of herbal supplements at four national retailers — GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart — and found that four out of five of the products did not contain any of the herbs on their labels. The tests showed that pills labeled medicinal herbs often contained little more than cheap fillers like powdered rice, asparagus and houseplants, and in some cases substances that could be dangerous to those with allergies.

Industry representatives have argued that any problems are caused by a handful of companies on the fringe of the industry. But New York’s investigation specifically targeted store brands at the nation’s drugstore and retail giants, which suggests that the problems are widespread.

Heartwarming.

Comments

  1. #1 See Noevo
    February 7, 2015

    Similar thing with antidepressants, apparently. Psych MDs readily admit it’s a crapshoot. But what’s more surprising is that when they DO work, it’s almost invariably due to the placebo effect. No less than CBS’ “60 Minutes” did a segment on this finding a year or two ago. Leslie Stahl was shocked.

  2. #2 G
    February 8, 2015

    Whoa there, careful about that overextension of conclusions.

    Yes, there are plenty of supplements being sold that contain none of the label ingredients and some unlabeled harmful ingredients. Agreed, the companies involved should be exposed and shredded.

    But that says nothing about the run-of-the-mill supplements such as plain vitamins and minerals. Over-generalizing about “supplements” accuses the innocent along with the guilty. Whether people need to take those vitamins and minerals at all, is another issue that can and should be debated on its own merits.

    But if you go in for overkill, then you will lose with all the families that give their kids One-A-Day at breakfast, all the geeks who take B-complex during long coding sessions, all the oldsters who take calcium pills, all the college kids who take vitamin C by the gram to fend off colds during finals week, and so on. Whether they gain any benefit at all, remains to be seen. But by and large those kinds of usages are harmless at worst, and a culture in which lotteries are legal has no basis to complain about people throwing their money away.

    Key strategic point: draw your circle of allies and supporters as wide as possible, and isolate your enemies to as small a group of their own supporters as possible. If we want to tackle quack supplements that are mislabeled and potentially dangerous, we should isolate them and their makers, rather than alienating everyone who pops vitamin pills.

  3. #3 MarkH
    February 8, 2015

    A fair point. I added “herbal” for greater precision.

  4. #4 Young CC Prof
    February 8, 2015

    If a food or drug company was shown to be counterfeiting, tainting and lying on labels even occasionally, it would be front-page news for days. The entire nation would be howling for their heads.

    For herbal supplements, apparently we as a society think “caveat emptor” is good enough.

    I personally think herbal supplements aren’t the best idea overall, that if the herbs have value they should be tested as drugs, but I still believe that if you choose to take a supplement, the ingredient list should be protected at least as well as a bottle of aspirin, or a box of cookies.

  5. #5 Kagehi
    February 8, 2015

    Yeah.. About the phsych meds.. When dealing with the brain, you have a real mess. Heck, even pain is. With other things, either it gets better, or it doesn’t, but, the brain’s own state is malleable, and if can “create” or “reduce” pain, for example, but.. it can also amplify, or decrease, its own.. malfunctions. So, give someone a med, and they are convinced it works, the belief could amplify the effect. By the same token… disbelief in he medication, might almost totally negate the effects, in some cases. Especially if the medication is… shall we say, marginal, and its effects, when they do work, not well understood.

    Or, at least that would be my theory anyway.

  6. #6 Tim
    IL
    February 9, 2015

    Even Consumerlab.com rejects the testing methods used, and they LOVEe to claim that supplements don’t meet label claims.

    http://www.cbsnews.com/news/herbal-supplements-industry-lashes-out-at-fraud-claims/#postComments

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