Tag Archives: herbal supplements

AHCJ award-winner’s work foretold N.Y. moratorium on certain supplements

Kris Hickman

About Kris Hickman

Kris Hickman (@the_index_case) is a graduate research assistant for AHCJ, pursuing a master’s degree in public health. She has a bachelor's degree in anthropology, with a minor in journalism, from the University of Missouri. She spent two years in Zambia as an HIV/AIDS community education volunteer in the Peace Corps. She aspires to be an epidemiologist and science writer.

Image by  Health Gauge via flickr.

Image by Health Gauge via flickr.

AHCJ members likely weren’t too surprised on Feb. 3, when the New York Office of the Attorney General ordered four major companies to stop selling certain herbal supplements, because in 2013, USA Today reporter Alison Young won an Award for Excellence in Health Care Journalism for investigating the lucrative and shadowy world of dietary supplements.

Research in New York showed many products did not contain any of the advertised ingredients, and in the series “Supplement Shell Game,” Young showed that some drugs – and their makers – can be downright dangerous. Even worse, industry players often clash with regulators, and many have criminal backgrounds.

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GAO sting spotlights sketchy herbal meds

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Undercover sting operation reports may not be the meatiest documents released by the Government Accountability Office, but they’re almost always the most entertaining.

This time, the target was herbal supplements marketed to elderly patients. In addition to reviewing marketing materials and chemical compositions, investigators posing as elderly customers called supplement companies and received all sorts of bad advice. Check the highlights page for a nifty table of the most common and egregious errors, all of which involved garlic, gingko biloba or ginseng. You can also hear recordings of sellers peddling these treatments here.

All claims were deceptive, but two were also potentially dangerous. They are reproduced, along with GAO commentary, below.

Claim: Ginseng cures diseases, including cancer.

Comment: NIH specifically recommends that breast and uterine cancer patients avoid this product, as it may have an adverse interaction with some cancer drugs.

Claim: Ginkgo biloba can be taken with a daily aspirin prescription.

Comment: Taking this product with aspirin may increase the risk of bleeding.

And, of course, there’s also the matter of toxic substances lurking in the supplements.

GAO also found trace amounts of at least one potentially hazardous contaminant in 37 of the 40 herbal dietary supplement products tested, though none in amounts considered to pose an acute toxicity hazard. All 37 supplements tested positive for trace amounts of lead; of those, 32 also contained mercury, 28 cadmium, 21 arsenic, and 18 residues from at least one pesticide. The levels of heavy metals found do not exceed any FDA or Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations governing dietary supplements or their raw ingredients.