Herbal supplements have the ability to provide a whole host of benefits—from boosting energy to aiding sleep, from enhancing memory to supporting the body’s many complex functions—but if you’re quick to reach for the off-brand bottle of your desired herb, you might want to reevaluate before you head to the checkout.
Maybe you’ve seen the story—but if not, here’s a quick rundown: On Monday February 2, 2015, New York’s attorney general’s office accused four major retailers of selling sham herbal products marketed under the respective store’s in-house brand name. And I’m willing to bet these four national chain stores are where many of us do our weekly shopping: Walmart, Target, GNC, and Walgreens.
Popular herbal supplements—including ginseng, Echinacea, St. John’s wort, garlic, ginkgo biloba, and saw palmetto—were subjected to DNA testing to verify that what’s on the label is indeed what’s in the bottle. The staggering results showed that, overall, only 21 percent of the tests verified the label claims—that is, that the plant on the label is in fact what’s in the bottle. Walmart performed the worst, with just 4 percent of its products showing DNA from the herbs on the label.
So if that bottle of ginkgo doesn’t have any ginkgo in it, what does it have? Veggies and fillers, basically: the tests found rice, beans, pine, citrus, asparagus, primrose, wheat, houseplant, wild carrot, and powdered legumes (the class of plants that includes peanuts and soybeans). Although these ingredients might not be harmful to some, those such as wheat and legumes are extremely dangerous to people with allergies.
Armed with these facts, what are we, as consumers, to do about it? As someone who scrutinizes product labels and carefully studies ingredients on the daily, I’m a big proponent of being an educated consumer. As long as I know what’s in a given product—the good, the bad, and the downright dirty—I am, at least, empowered with enough knowledge to enable me to make the decision that is best for me and my health.
Last August, I had the opportunity to tour the Gaia Herbs farm in Brevard, North Carolina. It was absolutely breathtaking! Gorgeous greenery, beautiful rolling mountains, and the natural buzz of wildlife made this “business trip” feel more like a “vacation.” I took more than 600 photos, plus audio and video—but you can find a sample of those snapshots here.
Part of the Gaia farm tour included a walk through the company’s processing facility—as well as an in-depth discussion of how Gaia grows, harvests, selects, and processes their herbs. I saw it firsthand: This is a company that places safety and efficacy at the top of their priority list.
“We’re taking every initiative to be fully transparent—right to the consumption of the product,” says Gaia founder, CEO, and president Ric Scalzo. “So what we claim on our label is indeed what’s in the bottle.”
In fact, 15 percent of the company is dedicated to quality control and quality assurance; these guys run tests to validate the raw material all the way from seed to shelf but have nothing to do with making or packaging the product.
“Gaia stood up and really challenged the industry because, especially with plants, it’s easy to say, ‘alright, this is Echinacea, and I know Echinacea, I can taste it and it’s got this Echinacea flavor to it; it makes my mouth tingle, so therefore it’s Echinacea,'” says Scalzo—but because so much adulteration takes place in the herbal industry, it’s become Gaia’s practice to routinely test for DNA on every herb.
“We’re the only company in the country validating identity to DNA,” Scalzo continues. “It’s quite a unique accomplishment.”
Look for the April issue of Natural Solutions for the full story—and to get an in-depth look at how Gaia lives up to its company-wide motto of purity + integrity = potency.