Monday, November 4, 2013


Your Nice, Healing Echinacea Tablets May Be Merely "Powdered Rice and Weeds"

The New York Times warns us to suspect our supplements:

Using a test called DNA barcoding, a kind of genetic fingerprinting that has also been used to help uncover labeling fraud in the commercial seafood industry, Canadian researchers tested 44 bottles of popular supplements sold by 12 companies. They found that many were not what they claimed to be, and that pills labeled as popular herbs were often diluted — or replaced entirely — by cheap fillers like soybean, wheat and rice.

Supplement spokespeople state that the study's findings are "overblown," and that DNA barcoding often doesn't work on herbs that have been processed into pills. But the supplement industry's "safe until proven otherwise" gambit may hide bigger problems:

For instance, the study found that one product advertised as black cohosh — a North American plant and popular remedy for hot flashes and other menopause symptoms — actually contained a related Asian plant, Actaea asiatica, that can be toxic to humans.

I don't take herbal supplements because I am lazy and don't want to subject my body to any "Here's some gingko biloba to help recover the memories you lost after drinking that bottle of wine" cognitive dissonance, but apparently nearly half of Americans take some sort of multivitamin or supplement: do you? What are the good ones? Does this study concern you or is this just what we should expect from an unregulated industry?

27 Comments / Post A Comment


I've always felt that most vitamins and supplements were a total waste of cash. Just eat healthy unprocessed foods and don't sweat it.

de Pizan

@garli Sure, that works if you have a healthy body which absorbs the nutrients like it's supposed to. But not everyone does. Throw in stuff like chronic/serious illnesses, digestive diseases, food allergies and other stuff, and just eating right isn't going to help with all the deficiencies.


@garli How do vitamins make it easier for your body to absorb nutrients?


@garli Maybe a biochemist can answer that question fully. I'm not one, but I do know that vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium and magnesium. Few foods have significant levels of vitamin D, so if you don't get out in the sun much, a D supplement is helpful.

On a different note, if healthy, unprocessed foods high in vitamins and minerals have the unfortunate side effect of making you shit your brains out, you're probably not getting the nutrients you need from them! If you're on an IBD-friendly diet of, like, oatmeal, chicken breast and avocados, a multivitamin is useful.


@cuminafterall True, I did not at all think of the second example. Although that diet sounds pretty unprocessed and delicious.

de Pizan

@garli No chemist either, but I've been told by doctors that sometimes different forms might absorb better than others. If someone is losing nutrients because of something like say, celiac, a capsule concentrated form might absorb better. Obviously food version is the best, but sometimes supplements do have their place.


oooooh, get it!@a


I eat the kids' gummy vitamins, which I'm only eating because they taste like candy, obvs.

I think most supplements are a complete scam and am not surprised by this finding. I would say fish oil and Vitamin D supplements are probably good - my vitamin D levels are so low I don't think even eating vitamin D rich foods would do much at this point.


@commanderbanana Also, this is a problem with prescription medicines, as well, especially ones manufactured in countries with lax oversight, as so many of them are now. I check where things are manufactured and am way less likely to buy skincare/lotions/vitamins, etc., that are not made in countries that have strict regulations and actually enforce them. The US is often not great about this either. Canada and Germany have some of the strictest quality control rules and are also tough about what you can label as organic, so I look for things manufactured there.


@commanderbanana I take a vitamin D supplement too... I just started, so we'll see when I go back for my physical next year if it made any difference. I would think it's okay to trust big-brand supplements, but maybe not? Oh crap, do I have to start researching something else? I only recently got into checking my financial statements...


@commanderbanana i love gummy vitamins a lot


@commanderbanana I double down and do gummy vitamins and gummy probiotics. They probably do nothing but I like feeling responsible when I eat candy.


@causedbycomma Hmmm...unless you're prepared to Do Science, I would say to look for a company manufactured in Canada, from my extensive research (thirty seconds of Googling) it seems like they have the tightest and best enforced rules about supplements. Getting your Vitamin D levels checked after you've been on it for a while will tell you whether it's helping or not.
My problem is that you get more D from the sun then from food, and I am never in the sun.
After reading about all the poison formula/dog food/etc. manufactured in China and about medicine made in India, I stopped buying anything that's going on/in my body that's made in China, but unfortunately so many prescription drugs are now made in countries with basically nonexistent regulations that it's hard to avoid.


@commanderbanana It looks like most of the samples tested in the study were from Canada. From the journal article, "In our study, samples were collected in the greater Toronto area (GTA) in Canada, with several samples mailed from distributors in the USA. All products are available to consumers in both Canada and the USA."


@commanderbanana Just take the Costco brand, they have v. strict food safety standards, and it extends to private label supplements!


Shit I love taking supplements. Obviously I've read things along the lines of "hey, you know there's nothing in that capsule except sawdust & GMO corn, right?" but I try to buy good brands...? The last thing I bought was bilberry, & it's supposed to be good for your eyes. Am I being scammed? (I also take 5htp, the serotonin precursor, which is supposed to---& does, I think!---help my depression)

dracula's ghost

well I don't know. I had horrible ovulation-related night sweats for months and months, and nobody could help me. Doctors just were like, "huh. you must have a hormone imbalance but there's no way to tell for sure." They told me my only option was to go on ANTI DEPRESSANTS, because they sometimes have a side effect of regulating hormones. WTF? This is the "science" that is supposed to be automatically superior to the witchery of acupuncture or whatever? Give me a break.

So I did a ton of research and trial and error and settled on this really intense, expensive supplement made by a local witch woman that has wild yam and black cohosh. This supplement absolutely cured my night sweats, but the black cohosh is a heavy herb and it made my period come a week early every month, so suddenly I was on a 23 day cycle. After a year I stopped taking it and the night sweats came back, but I just felt weird about taking such high doses of what was obviously a very effective herb, as I read that high doses of blackcohosh can be bad for your liver. Again, when I asked my doctor she just said "well, whatever works, it's probably fine." Great, thanks doctor. So glad I am paying $600 a month or something for this service

So whatever was in those supplements was a real thing that did powerful work in my body. For whatever that is worth to this discussion.

Faintly Macabre

As I've mentioned here before, I take Evening Primrose Oil to combat acne, especially the hormonal kind. It's impossible to be 100% sure if it's chance, other factors, or the EPO, but I've been taking it for about 6 months now and I have way fewer/less intense breakouts than I did before. I did research before starting it, and some studies showed that it was effective for certain conditions. Since I've been on all kinds of "proven" prescription drugs for acne that did nothing for me, that was enough to get me to try it.

I buy mine at Whole Foods, partly because I figure that as supplements are such a big part of their business, they wouldn't risk iffy suppliers. I hope that's the case! The rows and rows of supplements at CVS/Rite Aid kind of give me the creeps.

In general, I think a lot of supplements are a waste of money, and I find it ethically iffy that Whole Foods sells some that have absolutely no evidence of efficacy. I guess if they don't have harmful ingredients and they give people a nice placebo effect, there's no harm done, but I've also seen people delay getting real diagnoses because they thought they could solve their problems with supplements/crazy diets.


Really, what we need is for the FDA to get involved. Some herbs can interact with each other and with prescription medications; it's hard to account for those interactions if what you're getting isn't what you think you're getting. People deserve to get what they pay for; if the label says "St. John's Wart" it had damned well better be St. John's Wart. If the label on the meat I'm buying says "chicken", it's not okay for it to be pork.
I also think there's a lot of misinformation out there about what is safe to take and what the FDA regulates. I am sure there are people who think that if it's on the shelves at Target, it must be safe, even though there are warnings saying that it's not evaluated by the FDA.


@Blushingflwr When my dad did chemo, they told him ABSOLUTELY NO SUPPLEMENTS because they could inhibit his chemotherapy drugs. The FDA has to get involved if an herbal supplement can inhibit FUCKING POISON.


@DullHypothesis exactly. If grapefruit juice can fuck up the absorption rates of prescription medication, then I have to believe that there are a myriad of ways that over the counter supplements can interact with each other and with other medicines.

Better to Eat You With

My very lovely gynecologist asked me nicely to please take a pre-natal vitamin every day during my reproductive years, so I do. I feel a bit less energetic and healthy when I run out or don't take them for a few straight weeks, but I'm fairly certain that's a placebo effect.


@Better to Eat You With Could be iron. A friend recommended more iron when I said I was run down/tired in the afternoon with no diet change, so I took a multivitamin and BAM like magic in two weeks I felt great. Lots of women are prone to anemia even if you're getting the recommended amount of iron. Friend fixed hers with more veggies, but it didn't work for me.

Or it could be placebo effect.


I take a D + calcium supplement daily to stave off osteoporosis and the winter blues, and I use a whey protein supplement after I lift weights. Whoo, building muscle!

I also drink ginger tea or amaro after a heavy meal, partly to help with digestion, but mostly because they're delicious.


I take a B stress complex vitamin and I know it's doing something because it makes my pee highlighter yellow. I feel less energetic when I forget it, and it + magnesium during shark week help to fight off the crazies.

Mariah Mantis@twitter

I drink echinacea tea because I believe something that tastes that awful when you burp it back up has to work. And then I figure either it works because it works or because I believe it works, and either way, the cold is avoided or pretty low-key and short.

I also believe in those gummy Airborne-esque supplements you can only find at CVS, but that is again because either they work or I believe they work, and they are DELICIOUS.


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