NY Attorney General Cracks Down on Nutritional Supplements Manufacturers

Here at HighYa, we talk a lot about nutritional supplements. After all, we’re passionate about helping you become a more informed consumer, and this shadowy, “Wild West” corner of the market is riddled with unsupported claims and scams intended to steal your hard-earned money. And we consider it our duty to make sure you have all the information you need to make intelligent purchasing decisions.

Because of this, we’ve written nearly 300 in-depth nutritional supplements reviews to date, several articles that address specific products such as garcinia cambogia, testosterone boosters, probiotics, and more, and have even written a comprehensive guide on purchasing your next nutritional supplement.

In that guide, we outlined how little governmental oversight nutritional supplements are subjected to before reaching consumers, and that the FDA only gets involved once enough customers have filed complaints. In fact, manufacturers can make essentially any claim they want about their supplements, and aren’t required to provide a shred of evidence to support them. 

And to add insult to injury, even once the government does take action, by the time the case has wormed its way through the legal process, manufacturers are often on to their next product, and the process begins all over again.

A New Era of Deceit for Nutritional Supplements

Even though consumer advocacy organizations like HighYa have been holding nutritional supplements manufacturer’s feet to the fire for years regarding their claims, it appears that many of these products don’t just include overblown claims—they may not even contain all (or any) of the ingredients shown on their labels.

To briefly outline this growing trend, ConsumerLab.com has performed several laboratory tests on a variety of nutritional supplements, and found many of them to be lacking. For example:

  • Out of 13 garcinia cambogia supplements tested, only 6 contained the amount of hydroxycitric acid (HCA) shown on their labels.
  • Out of 19 probiotic supplements tested, only 14 contained the live culture levels listed on their labels.
  • Out of 42 multivitamins tested, 16 didn’t contain the nutrient levels listed on their labels; some contained an excess of listed ingredients (possibly leading to health concerns), and some didn’t list all of their ingredients. Overall, ConsumerLab found a whopping 40% to contain at least one defect.

When you have a few minutes to spare, we’d strongly recommend reading through a few of ConsumerLab’s supplement reviews (including those above), as we’re sure you’ll find the results to be extremely eye-opening. 

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “Regardless of the industry we’re talking about, there are always going to be some bad apples. But this just represents some of the smaller, less reputable companies, right?”

As it turns out, this might not be the case.

The State of New York Takes Action Against Supplements Manufacturers

According to a February 2015 NY Times article, the New York Attorney General’s office recently “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.”

In addition, “Among the attorney general’s findings was a popular store brand of ginseng pills at Walgreens, promoted for “physical endurance and vitality,” that contained only powdered garlic and rice. At Walmart, the authorities found that its ginkgo biloba, a Chinese plant promoted as a memory enhancer, contained little more than powdered radish, houseplants and wheat — despite a claim on the label that the product was wheat- and gluten-free.

Three out of six herbal products at Target — ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort and valerian root, a sleep aid — tested negative for the herbs on their labels. But they did contain powdered rice, beans, peas and wild carrots. And at GNC, the agency said, it found pills with unlisted ingredients used as fillers, like powdered legumes, the class of plants that includes peanuts and soybeans, a hazard for people with allergies.”

As a result, the attorney general sent 4 cease and desist letters to each of the retailers, citing “mislabeling, contamination and false advertising” as the cause, and demanding that the products be removed from store shelves. And as you can clearly see, these massive concerns weren’t related to a fringe manufacturer, but to “store brands at the nation’s drugstore and retail giants, which suggests that the problems are widespread.”

So where does this leave you? What can you do?

When it Comes to Nutritional Supplements, Research is Key

First, understand that most physicians recommend obtaining essential vitamins and nutrients from the foods you eat, instead of through multivitamins and supplements. Because of this, if you’re thinking about purchasing a supplement, the first person you should speak with is your physician, as they’ll be able to provide recommendations based on your current level of health, your specific diagnosis, as well as their experience.

In fact, unless you’re pregnant or an older adult, “If you're generally healthy and eat a wide variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, low-fat dairy products, lean meats and fish, you likely don't need supplements [in the first place].”

Next, keep in mind that even if your doctor gives you the go-ahead to start taking a supplement, these recommendations often fall into the “it probably won’t hurt” category. In other words, there is essentially zero clinical evidence showing that supplementation of any kind can prevent chronic disease or death. So while taking a supplement may not necessarily harm you, there is very little evidence showing that it will help. Ultimately, this might provide you with very little value for your money.

Despite this caveat, if you’re intent on going full steam ahead in your quest for a nutritional supplement, the final step is to do some research. As we mentioned above, clinical sites such as ConsumerLab can let you know about the quality of—and ingredient levels in (or lack thereof)—nutritional supplements, while consumer advocacy sites like HighYa can give you an in-depth look at what customers are saying about supplements. 

Common Tactics to Watch Out For

It’s important to note here that many less-than-stellar supplements manufacturers often post fake online reviews and misleading articles featuring fake celebrity endorsements, which are intended to make you think the product is credible, when it’s actually just a bunch of marketing hype. Also, nutritional supplements sold online are often offered only through free trials and subsequent autoship programs, which, as we’ve noted on numerous occasions, we typically recommend avoiding altogether.

As we discussed at the beginning of the article, supplements are almost wholly unregulated, which means that manufacturers will make some bold claims regarding the efficacy of their products. While it could be time consuming to research each and every claim related to every supplement you’re thinking about purchasing (which is what we do here at HighYa), a much quicker method is to find a list of ingredients, hop on over to WebMD, and search for each one. And it goes without saying that if you can’t find a label or full list of ingredients for a supplement on its website, it should be avoided.

Finally, perhaps because they lack positive customer reviews and clinical evidence supporting their claims, some supplements manufacturers (especially those within the weight loss niche) will attempt to sell their products using emotion instead of information. In order to insulate yourself from these types of sales tactics, we’d highly recommend reading our article titled How Weight Loss Ads Convince You to Buy.

Let’s Hear From You!

Do you live in New York State? Have you seen some of the supplements mentioned in the NY Times article removed from store shelves? Do you have any supplements stories you’d like to share with more than 1 million consumers all around the world?

Here at HighYa, we’re all about starting a conversation, especially related to the shady supplements industry. So be sure to leave a comment below, and share this article with everyone you know!

Derek Lakin

With more than a decade of experience as a copywriter, Derek takes a detail-oriented, step-by-step approach to help you shop smarter. Whether it’s nutritional supplements or new scams, he believes an informed consumer is a happy customer.

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