20/20 Takes On Dietary Supplements

December 21, 2000

3 Min Read
<I>20/20</I> Takes On Dietary Supplements

NEW YORK--Last week, the popular newsmagazine 20/20 ran a broadcast entitled, "What's Really in the Bottle," which reported that some dietary supplements contain inaccurate amounts of key ingredients and may even harbor pesticide residue. ConsumerLab.com, a company that is paid to conduct product analyses, was predominantly featured in the report.

The 20/20 correspondent, Arnold Diaz, built the segment around the suggestion that some dietary supplements may contain less of a key ingredient than what is listed on the label. 20/20 paid ConsumerLab.com for a detailed analysis of tests the site had conducted on 100 bottles of herbal supplements (with results showing that one out of four products had failed). Diaz mentioned that the site also sells its seal of approval to products that pass its tests, and he added that, "Some companies argue that's a conflict of interest and they object because only one bottle of each brand is tested. But ConsumerLab.com stands by the accuracy of its results."

The show covered supplements such as chondroitin, which usually partners with glucosamine as an osteoarthritic treatment. ConsumerLab.com found that eight out of 15 brands failed because they did not contain the amount of chondroitin labeled. "But chondroitin manufacturers we heard from say their tests show no problem with their products," Diaz said. "[The manufacturers] said scientists disagree over the best way to test chondroitin and results from different labs can vary significantly."

Two other supplements that were scrutinized were SAM-e and ginseng. Six out of 13 SAM-e products failed, containing less than the labeled amount. Diaz noted that one product almost had no SAM-e in it. On the other hand, of the tested ginseng supplements, eight of the 21 tested for quintozene, a pesticide sometimes sprayed on ginseng plants. The ginseng manufacturers said at the time that ConsumerLab.com issued the report (several months ago) that the test must have been conducted on older products, because only certified quintozene-free materials are currently used.

However, these tests may only be the tip of the iceberg. "Whether it's ginseng, SAM-e or chondroitin, ConsumerLab.com says its test results are a snapshot of an industry with obvious problems," Diaz said, adding that other analyses conducted by the Good Housekeeping Institute and Consumer Reports have found that supplements such as echinacea do not contain as much of the key ingredient as what is listed on its label.

"The good news is that many of these products are very effective, and they can improve our lives," said Joe Graedon, a pharmacologist and host for the "People's Pharmacy," a radio program available through HealthCentral.com. Graedon, who was featured throughout the segment, is a strong advocate for herbal supplements, but he is also a strong supporter of better labeling standards for the industry.

"These are chemicals; they're just like drugs," Graedon said. "And in [an] overdose, they can cause side effects, just like drugs. In the wrong combination, they can cause complications."

The show also included a brief comment from David Seckman, the executive director of the National Nutritional Foods Association (NNFA). Seckman responded to the mislabeling allegations by stating that a majority of supplement manufacturers follow good manufacturing practices (GMPs). "[NNFA] finds that overwhelmingly, what's stated on the label is what's in the product," he explained. In a press release dated Dec. 18, Seckman (who taped his portion of the segment last June) added that "showing both the NNFA and GMP program logos also helps us in establishing our `brand' with consumers."

However, Diaz ended his report with a cautionary statement. "Since there's nobody policing they may take shortcuts, and those shortcuts may lead to products that are not 100 percent, and that's tragic."

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