Can Supplements be Trusted?

On February 3rd, the New York Times released an article, New York Attorney General Targets Supplements at Major Retailers, in which they found that four of five herbal supplements did not contain the herb they purported to. The supplements came from four national retailers: GNC’s Herbal Plus, Target’s Up & Up, Walgreens’ Finest Nutrition, and Walmart’s Spring Valley. Even most of the garlic supplements didn’t contain garlic – a component that would seem rather unchallenging to obtain.

A reader asked me to weigh in on whether this has any ramifications for the supplements vegans are recommended.

In my recent Interview with Talk to a Doc, I talked about how vegans do not necessarily need to take supplement pills since there are other ways to obtain recommended nutrients. That said, it’s often easier and more convenient, and some might argue even more American to just take a pill!

So what does this NY Attorney General report mean for those of us taking supplements? In most cases, the controversy over what’s in supplements is about herbal supplements that are supposed to have medicinal effects rather than for vitamins and minerals. Even so, I’d be hesitant to rely on the exposed companies even for vitamins and minerals.

You can trust that supplements with the U.S. Pharmacopeia’s USP Verified symbol have what the label indicates. But getting the USP Verified symbol is expensive and so most smaller companies don’t go through the process.

While I can’t know for sure, I have no reason to doubt the supplement brands I generally take (Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s) or the supplements popular in the vegan community such as VegLife, Deva, Vitashine, or Opti3.


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8 Responses to “Can Supplements be Trusted?”

  1. Nadege Says:

    I have bought Solgar vitamins and minerals for a long time. A couple of years ago, the Los Angeles Times had vitamins analyzed from different companies and most of them didn’t have the amount claimed inside the bottles, even Solgar. I do take a calcium citrate every night, a magnesium citrate every morning, one B12 once a week and zinc citrate once a week. Because of going vegan, my hair was really falling off a lot. Zinc has helped a lot. Otherwise, I get all I need from food but since vitamins are a multi billion dollar business, I would have hoped that most companies would be honest about their products. Also from the LA Times, ALL of the ingredients in those vitamins were coming from China, but the vitamins were made and bottled in the states.

  2. Katrina Says:

    When I decided that my family’s vegan diet would include supplementation, I signed up to pay a subscription fee to an independent lab that tests vitamin, mineral and herbal supplements routinely for things like contamination, the actual amount of the substance that it is supposed to contain, and other things, to help us choose which brands we would use, and I feel that it has been worth it. I have even given subscriptions to others as gifts, because there is generally so little oversight on these products.

  3. LG Smith Says:

    This company tests the quality of supplements and their reports used to be free. Now there’s a subscription charge:

    And, as mentioned in the article above, here is the list of companies that participate with the USP process:

  4. Zak Says:

    The discussion around this article appears to be continuing. Here is an updated article about GNC’s response.

  5. Jack Norris RD Says:


    > Consistent with Dr. Davis’ opinion, the USP published the following statement in its April 2014 Pharmacopeial Forum: “Some of the botanical preparations, such as extracts used as ingredients for dietary supplement dosage forms, are subjected to conditions that would eliminate the DNA content rendering the DNA-based methods unusable for these types of ingredients.”

    Yikes. I would have thought that the NY Attorney General’s office would have considered this.

  6. Brandon Becker Says:

    When I used to take supplements beyond B12 and D, I got a one-year membership to Consumer Lab since they test supplements. As you mentioned Trader Joe’s brand, I remember seeing a Trader Joe’s supplement listed as failed, however, I don’t remember what it was or why it failed (ingredients, dissolving, etc) since I’m not a member anymore. I wish all companies would submit their products for USP verification (only a tiny percentage do) and also that there was government regulation to remove harmful supplements (USP doesn’t deal with safety) from the market like with prescription drugs.

  7. Joel Says:

    I have a different question about supplements. The latest column by “Ask Dr. K”, titled “Most men don’t need calcium supplements,” advises against calcium supplements because of possible risks from high doses. However, he advises instead relying on the usual suspects — certain greens and fish (we’ll ignore the latter) — and — here’s the punchline — various calcium-fortified foods, such as OJ, soy milk, and cereals. Now my question is: Isn’t fortified calcium just calcium supplement by another name? If so, then is Dr. K’s point that fortified calcium is likely to come in smaller and hence safer doses?

  8. Jack Norris RD Says:


    > If so, then is Dr. K’s point that fortified calcium is likely to come in smaller and hence safer doses?

    Maybe s/he thinks that fortified calcium is buffered by food.

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