New York’s Attorney General Upends the Marketing of Herbal Supplements

The marketing of herbal dietary supplements became substantially more challenging in 2015 after the New York State Attorney General’s (AG) office asserted that several popular store brands did not contain the herbs they claimed to. If true, this would be exceedingly negligent.

However, a number of plant chemists and a wide array of industry groups claimed that the AG used the wrong type of test to examine the herbs in these supplements. The agency tested for the presence of the plants’ DNA in the supplements. While DNA barcode testing is the gold standard to identify organisms ranging from humans to microorganisms, experts argued that it is inappropriate to use to test highly purified herbal supplements.

Most procedures to isolate chemicals from plants (“phytochemicals”) use a variety of highly specialized techniques. These purification processes generally discard the DNA as an unwanted contaminant and just focus on isolating the desired chemicals. Thus, it can be argued that it is perfectly reasonable for herbal supplements to not contain the DNA of the plants that provided the chemicals.

Trade groups that made this argument include a who’s who of the herbal products industry:

  • American Herbal Products Association
  • Consumer Healthcare Products Association
  • Council for Responsible Nutrition
  • Natural Products Association
  • United Natural Products Alliance

The FDA requires that that manufacturers conduct “at least one appropriate test or examination” to verify that the supplements contain what they are said to. However, the agency does not specify the type of method to be used and does not mandate DNA barcode testing.

Despite the inadequate science behind the AG’s charges, many manufacturers of herbal supplements have rushed to have them tested for DNA. In fact, herbal and supplement testing labs like Alkemist Labs introduced extremely high-powered new DNA analytical techniques to help identify traces of this genetic material in the samples.

The final chapter has yet to be written, and it is not clear whether good science will triumph over bad public policy. For now, marketers of herbal dietary supplements must tread a fine line to produce high quality products and make sure that they have been tested appropriately.

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