The state attorney general's revelation that very few or no active ingredients are in containers of many popular dietary supplements corroborates what Long Island scientists have argued for years -- what's on the label isn't necessarily what's in the bottle.
"We first made this point 10 years ago. Now this brings it home to the people," said Dr. Arthur Grollman, director of the Laboratory of Chemical Biology at Stony Brook University School of Medicine. Grollman has found in his lab that some products on the market pose dangers to consumers.
State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman sent cease and desist letters to GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreen Co., after he found store brands of popular supplements didn't contain ingredients stated on the labels.
Schneiderman's office had DNA testing performed on echinacea, ginseng, St. John's wort, garlic, Ginkgo biloba and saw palmetto products. The products contained fillers and totally unrelated substances, the testing found.
"Many of these products come from China where selling herbal supplements to the rest of the world is big business," Grollman said, noting that the Chinese supplement industry is unregulated.
The Schneiderman probe turned up herbal products tainted with residues of rice, beans, pine, citrus, asparagus, primrose, wheat, houseplant and wild carrot. In many cases, the contaminant was the only plant material found in samples.
Marc Ullman, a Garden City lawyer who represented supplement makers cited for manufacturing problems, said, "I do know that the industry finds these results unbelievable."
Ullman -- who also serves as chairman of the legal advisory committee for Natural Products Foundation -- said the lab the attorney general used is most experienced in testing "reptilian" DNA. The foundation is a not-for-profit organization that supports research, education and knowledge regarding dietary supplements, nutritional foods and related products.
James Schulte of Clarkson University in Potsdam ran what is known as PCR tests. Scientists Monday said DNA is DNA and the skill involved with running PCR involves expertise in the method, not the sample being tested.
Grollman, who has written prolifically in the academic press about problems in the herbal products industry has also called for amendments to the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which essentially allows the industry to police itself.
Grollman said Monday that the attorney general's job is only half done. Schneiderman, he said, should test herbal supplements for deadly additives or bacteria.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's database of product recalls includes hundreds of supplements cited almost weekly because of potentially dangerous contaminants: steroids, banned prescription drugs and amphetamines.
Other supplements have been recalled due to poor manufacturing processes or microbial content. Production plants have been cited for rodents and rodent urine and feces.
A Connecticut premature baby died last fall after being fed with a probiotic that was contaminated with the mold Rhizopus oryzae. Critics say the industry is plagued with fly-by-night businesses and some are even run by ex-convicts.
In 2005, Long Island Internet supplement proprietor Matthew Cahill was imprisoned for putting a pesticide into capsules and selling them online as a weight loss aid. Once released, he went back into the industry. In 2013, a Harvard University researcher, Dr. Pieter Cohen, found what he said was an amphetaminelike compound in the product. Cahill was cited by the FDA last year.
Most problems with supplements are not quite as dire, but Schneiderman still warns consumers it's a "buyer beware."
Dr. David Baker, a Stony Brook professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive medicine, found two years ago that samples of black cohosh, an herb some women take to abate menopausal symptoms, contained very little of the plant.
He and his colleagues -- Damon Little and Dennis Stevenson -- both biologists at The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, found that a quarter of the brands they tested contained no black cohosh.
Monday, Little said the team used a PCR test to find the DNA signature in herbal products.The test won its developer a Nobel Prize.