Supplements are supposed to help you maintain a healthy diet. But some companies' labels may be lying

By Paige Fowler
February 04, 2015
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The labels on your supplements may be lying: Many contain much lower levels of the herbs than what's listed on their labels-and some have none at all, according to an investigation by the New York State attorney general's office. (These 12 Tiny Expert-Backed Changes for Your Diet promise to boost your health.)

For the investigation, the attorney general's office purchased 78 herbal supplements from dozens of locations across New York. They used DNA barcoding to identify the ingredients. Investigators also found that some of the supplements contained allergens, such as wheat and beans, that weren't mentioned on the packaging at all. In fact, the label of one supplement made with wheat claimed it was wheat and gluten-free. Excuse me?

What's going on? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't regulate supplements like they do medications. Instead, companies are left to verify that the supplements they manufacture are safe and accurately labeled, functioning more or less on the honor code.

Tod Cooperman, M.D., president of, points out that the technology used to ID the ingredients in the investigation is extremely new-and it's not exactly foolproof. "The test is based on finding the DNA of the herb. While this may work on supplements made from whole parts of herbs, it won't necessarily work on herbal extracts-which most of the products tested were," he explains. While he deems the Attorney General's findings premature, he also points out that they're still concerning.

The good news: There are steps you can take to suss out supplements.

1. Avoid labels that contain the words "formula," "blend," or "proprietary." "It automatically means that the manufacturer is putting other things in there and may not be telling you how much of the actual herb is in the supplement," Cooperman says.

2. Look for one ingredient-or as close to one as possible. "That way, you'll know whether the ingredient is actually helping or not," Cooperman says. So if you're looking for a vitamin D supplement, choose one that only has vitamin D3-and make sure you're not taking your vitamin D supplement incorrectly. "The more ingredients a supplement contains the greater the likelihood is that it will have contaminants."

3. Skip any that claim to help you lose weight, boost sexual function, or gain muscle. Not only are they unlikely to have the advertised effect, they could be harmful. The FDA recently discovered many weight loss supplements that are tainted with the prescription medication sibutramine, which was taken off the market in 2010 because it caused heart problems and stroke.