When you buy a bottle of supplements, you don’t expect to be paying for ground-up asparagus or rice.
But with news of state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issuing a cease and desist to Target,GNC, Walgreens and Wal-Mart for selling store-brand herbal products that did not contain what their labels specified, shoppers are left with a bitter reminder of how difficult it is to navigate the supplements market.
Consumers spend over $32 billion on dietary supplements every year, in a marketplace that has more than 85,000 products, said Chuck Bell, programs director of the Yonkers-based Consumer Reports — but the FDA only has enough resources to inspect around 600 facilities a year.
“There are long-standing problems in quality control in dietary supplement manufacturing, so consumers do need to be careful when selecting and using these products,” said Bell. “Regrettably, the supplement industry has vigorously resisted efforts to improve public oversight to improve the quality and safety of these products.”
Some health-food store owners, like David Collins of Sweetpea’s Market in Nyack, are careful not to steer customers toward any supplements at all, even if they’re available on the shelves.
“People come in saying, ‘I have a headache. What do you have for that?’ And a headache can be caused by so many things that I can’t be saying, ‘Well, try this herb’ when I don’t know what pharmaceutical medication they’re on that could be contraindicated to take that herb with,” said Collins. “You don’t know their history, and there are so many variables.”
Supplement manufacturers can also make claims that are not supported, or that are backed up by studies sponsored by the companies themselves, said Dr. Lisa E. Heuer of Nyack, who specializes in preventive medicine and medically supervised weight management. In general, she said, most people don’t need dietary supplements — but in the event they do, they must choose them carefully.