Major Retailers Under Fire for Selling Pseudo Supplements

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Supplements. They can come in the form of vitamins, minerals, herbs, or amino acids.  My “New Year, new me” brain tells me they’re good for me, but unless they come in cute, chewable gummy form, I’m just not interested. But for more than half of all Americans, taking some form of daily supplement is pretty routine. Do these tiny capsules actually contain what they say they do? The New York Attorney General’s office says no.

In a new investigation, authorities tested top-selling supplement brands from major retailers and found four out of five of the products didn’t even contain their title ingredients. Instead they contained cheap fillers like powdered rice, garlic, mustard, wheat, and asparagus–many of which could be dangerous for people with allergies.

This information is shocking, but not too hard to believe, since the supplement industry operates in a dietary foods gray area, and therefore isn’t too harshly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Due to the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, supplements are considered safe until proven otherwise. Well, apparently we’ve proven otherwise.

In a cease and desist letter sent to GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Wal-Mart, the New York Attorney General’s office demanded these retailers explain how they verify the ingredients in their “adulterated” store brand herbal supplements, as well as take products that weren’t truthful off the shelves.

At Walgreens, investigators discovered the store’s popular brand of supposed “physical endurance enhancing” ginseng pills actually contained powdered garlic and rice. Walmart wasn’t any better–its ginkgo biloba supplements actually contained powdered radish, houseplants, and wheat, despite being listed as “gluten-free.”

What even is ginkgo biloba? Apparently, this medicinal herb boasts the ability to improve blood circulation, memory, cognitive thinking, and according to some, sexual performance. But for those with Celiac disease or other gluten sensitivities, the only thing their Walmart tablets will be improving is their frequency of an upset stomach.

Other supplements to avoid include Target’s ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort, and valerian root, which all tested negative for the herbs on their labels. GNC’s pills also often unlisted ingredients used as fillers, like powdered legumes, the class of plants that includes peanuts and soybeans. Given the prevalence of nut and soy allergies, this revelation is scary for people with those sensitivities.

The Attorney General’s investigation was prompted by an New York Times article in 2013 that raised questions about widespread labeling fraud in the supplement industry.

Americans don’t like to play around when it comes to their health, so these companies better respond to these allegations swiftly. According to the New York Times, a GNC spokesperson said they would cooperate “in all the appropriate ways,” while Walgreens said it would remove the products from its shelves nationwide, even though only New York State had demanded it. Walmart claimed it would reach out to the suppliers of its pseudo supplements “and take appropriate action.”

Are vitamin supplements even worth the hype? While the ones being sold at these retailers are clearly suspect, the usefulness of vitamins in general is still up for debate. For more information, check out this issues post on the subject.

However, the lack of attention paid to allergy concerns is still the most upsetting thing about this entire scandal. I’m wondering if complaints will start to come out of the woodwork claiming anaphylaxis reactions to these retailers’ products. If so, GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreens can look forward to some very enjoyable civil suits.

Alexis Evans
Alexis Evans is an Assistant Editor at Law Street and a Buckeye State native. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and a minor in Business from Ohio University. Contact Alexis at



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