Today, the attorney general of New York sent cease-and-desist letters to a set of major chain stores, asking them to stop sales of a number of herbal supplements that contained contaminants, lacked the promised ingredient, or both. His actions follow those of the Federal Trade Commission, which is going after the makers of the green coffee bean extract that was promoted by TV’s popular Dr. Oz show.
The two cases have different origins. The New York one dates back to 2013, when researchers started performing DNA tests on a set of herbal remedies obtained in stores. These showed that many popular remedies didn’t actually contain the species mentioned on the label and often contained extraneous plant matter—in some cases from plants that can also provoke significant biological responses.

That study helpfully identified DNA sequences that could be used to specifically detect the presence of specific species of medicinal herbs. The NY attorney general’s office followed up on this approach, obtaining own-brand products from stores such as GNC, Target, Walgreen, and Wal-Mart. (The announcement says the investigation is ongoing, so more may be named later.) These products were subjected to DNA testing and again came up short, with Wal-Mart at the bottom; only four percent of its samples had evidence of the plant listed on the label. The overall rate here was just 21 percent, and many others contained contaminants. (Some of the products involved include Echinacea, Ginseng, St. John’s Wort, and Ginkgo Biloba; see the announcement for a detailed list of the supplements and results.)
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