Think It's Really St. John's Wort? Think Again

I win.  My husband and I argue all the time about vitamin pills and supplements.  I don't take anything other than fish oil but he believes in just about every claim ever made about supplements. 

Now I'm finally being proved right.  A new study has found that,  using DNA analysis, only two out of 12 companies tested sold supplements that were all completely genuine and free of plant substitution.  The others?  They contained fillers such as soy, rice, and wheat, or weeds or potentially harmful contaminants.

According to Sarah B. Weir at, researchers at a university in Ontario tested things like St. John's wort and echinacea -- and 42 others -- that are sold by 12 different companies in Canada and the United States, and they found that "one-third of the supplements contained none of the plant extracts indicated on the product label. "

In addition, 59 percent were contaminated with plant species not listed on the ingredients list, including "some that were considered toxic or allergy producing, as well as other potentially hazardous substances."  

The vitamin and supplement industry, though very profitable (and maybe that's why) at $5 billion a year in the U.S. alone, is not regulated.  So these pills that we take could be full of straight sugar, or formaldehyde (unlikely, I know), just about anything someone tries to make money off.

For years the industry has successfully fought off regulation.  David Schardt tells, senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "tells Yahoo Shine that previous studies have also shown that in an unregulated industry, supplements don't always contain what they are supposed to have," Weir reports. 

He adds, "It's not impossible, but it may be hard for consumers to find quality products" at all.

Weir notes that most of us think if we can buy it at the pharmacy, or health food store, it must be safe.  But that's just not the case. "Unlike both prescription and over-the-counter drugs, which are strictly regulated, dietary supplements don't have to be proven safe and effective to the Food and Drug Administration before hitting the market."

While the FDA has banned some harmful products, such as ephedra, she writes, "It can be years before the FDA receives enough complaints to take action. And adverse reactions are shockingly underreported—the FDA estimates that there are as many as 50,000 'adverse events'  involving dietary supplements a year, while fewer than 1,000 are officially recorded."

It's not because they want to trick us, she goes on.  It's just that "the science of isolating active compounds is tricky, and growing and harvesting plants can introduce all sorts of contaminants. She says that a 2010 study of 40 herbal supplements by the Government Accountability Office found that a shocking 37 of them "tested positive for hazardous substances such as lead, cadmium, mercury, arsenic, and pesticides."

So what should you do if you want to try a vitamin or supplement?  Weir suggests talking to your doctor.  And I can't wait to tell my husband, "I told you so!" 


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