Ever wonder how much all those vitamins and supplements actually effected you? The truth is, probably not much, since they were likely full of useless crap.

The New York State Attorney’s Office conducting an investigation into store-brand supplements at GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart found that some of their dietary supplements did not contain any of the herbs presented on their labels. All four stores received a cease and desist letter about selling the products.

The investigators tested a total of 24 products that were claiming to be seven different types of herb, echinacea, garlic, gingko biloba, ginseng, saw palmetto, St. John’s wort and valerian root. All but five contained DNA that was not from a plant or separate from what it claimed to be. They were tested using DNA barcoding, which identifies the objects from a genetic fingerprint.

“Contamination, substitution and falsely labeling herbal products constitute deceptive business practices and, more importantly, present considerable health risks for consumers,” the letters said. They were reported first by the New York Times.


Wal-Mart had the worst products overall, none of the six supplements had purely the ingredient that was advertised. Health experts have openly complained about the quality of dietary supplements. Supplements don’t apply to the same guidelines as regular prescription drugs. GNC was found to have pills with unlisted ingredients used a fillers. It included peanuts, soybeans, mustard, wheat and radish. All of those can be a hazard for people that have allergies.

This marks the first time that law enforcement has threatened big retail or drug store chains with legal action.

“Mislabeling, contamination and false advertising are illegal,” Eric T. Schneiderman, the state attorney general, said. “They also pose unacceptable risks to New York families, especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients.”

Only New York has demanded that these stores remove their products from their shelves. Walgreens has said that they will remove the products from their shelves around the country. GNC has said they will cooperate but it stood behind the quality of its supplements. Target has not responded and Wal-Mart said they will handle it in the right way.

“If this data is accurate, then it is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry,” said Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and an expert on supplement safety. “We’re talking about products at mainstream retailers like Walmart and Walgreens that are expected to be the absolute highest quality.”

The investigations were prompted by a 2013 New York Times article. The article mentioned research from Canada in which many of their supplements were found with fillers. Under current law, supplements are assumed to be safe until authorities prove otherwise. They are only pulled from shelves when serious injuries happen. In 2013, 72 people contracted hepatitis that traced to a tainted supplement. 

“These products are not subject to F.D.A.’s premarket review or approval requirements for safety and effectiveness,” the F.D.A. stated, “nor to the agency’s rigorous manufacturing and testing standards for drugs.”