NATURAL MEDICINE: Don’t buy into the supplement scare

By on March 11, 2015
(Photo credit:

(Photo credit:

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – A recent New York Times article on herbal supplements has drawn misleading conclusions about the quality of supplements throughout the entire industry. I use supplements and herbs regularly in my practice and I recommend and sell them to my patients, so I want to clear this up.

The article detailed an investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s office of supplements sold at GNC, Walmart, Target, and Walgreens. The investigation found that only two thirds of the 44 supplements tested contained any trace of the plant they were purportedly based on (for example, gingko, echinacea, etc.). The NY attorney general’s office ordered a recall of those supplements from the four mega-retailers, due to what it called “widespread fraud in the dietary supplement industry.”

As a result of the NYT article, the efficacy of all supplements, as many media outlets over-simplified the story in the interest of dramatic headlines, have been called into question. But the real story is much simpler.

There is a hierarchy of quality in the supplement industry. Store brands, which carry the label of big retailers like GNC and the others investigated, are of the lowest quality, followed by the brands you often see in health food stores. Pharmaceutical grade supplements are sold to physicians or health care practitioners only and are the highest quality in the hierarchy.

The brands tested by the NYAG’s office were of the lowest price and quality, the “in-store brands” of GNC, Walmart, Target and Walgreens.

Supplements are effective when they are used to address a specific condition or need in a patient. The best way to identify those conditions is by consulting one of Jackson’s many medical professionals that has experience using herbs in health care, to ensure that you are using the proper supplement and dosage. I regularly hear from people who choose supplements by wandering through a health food store display, only to experience marginal results, which is somewhat predictable.

Another issue is cost. As you might expect, supplements at the high end of the hierarchy definitely cost more, but they pay you back with greater effectiveness. When I first began practicing in Jackson, I still kept working in Washington DC., and would bring back extracts from a local wild crafter and sell them in my practice. I remember one DC patient who thought the Vitex I was giving for her hot flashes was too expensive, so she decided to get it from Whole Foods. She soon realized she had to use four times as much to experience the same result.

Luckily, we are allowed access to a wide variety of supplements due to the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health Education Act. Pharmaceutical companies have been after this part of the health market for years. The herbal and supplement industry has been setting up self-monitoring regulations, but as we can see from the case written up in the New York Times, they are not good enough. If you are looking for reports on supplements, and LabDoor both are independent labs. Also look for NSF or USP on labels, companies that abide by these standards are likely to have better products.

The supplement industry does itself no favors when big retailers sell low-quality products, however their actions are not a good reason to lose faith in supplements as a whole. With a proper diagnosis and dosage, an herbal supplement can make a significant, natural contribution to your overall wellness.

Monique Lai, ND, is a naturopathic doctor and natural health expert with a family practice in Jackson Hole.

About Dr. Monique Lai

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