They promise “energy now,” the chance to “lose up to 19 pounds” or promote “deep, healthy sleep,” but what do herbal supplements really contain, and should we think twice before taking them?
On Feb. 2, the New York State attorney general’s office released a report accusing four national retailers of selling herbal supplements that did not contain all of the ingredients their packaging claimed, and in some cases contained none of them.
While authorities in New York were preparing that report, Bucknell University ProfessorDavid Rovnyak, chemistry, and his students were asking a different, but just as relevant question about herbal supplements: What do they contain that the manufacturers aren’t telling you about? What they found is alarming.
Some supplements students in Rovnyak’s Introduction to Molecular Spectroscopy course examined contained unlabeled caffeine, possible laxatives and niacin, an organic compound that can cause allergic reactions or conflict with other medications. In one supplement, they found an unlabeled derivative of the prescription drug Viagra.
“It’s a molecule that’s similar to Viagra but not identical,” Rovnyak said. “There are underground laboratories, often offshore, where they alter Viagra so that it’s a slightly different molecule. This is very frightening, because now you have a different molecule that hasn’t undergone any FDA safety testing.
“It could cause irreversible organ damage,” he continued. “It could have allergenic effect. It could be a carcinogen. We simply don’t know, because it’s a completely new drug. So this is a shockingly dangerous pill, and it was a surprise to find it.”