Are Herbal Supplements Worth Your Money?

The herbal supplements in your cupboard may not be what you paid for. Have you heard the news? In early 2015, the New York State attorney general’s office led an investigation into store-brand supplements sold by GNC, Target, Walgreens and Wal-Mart. They wanted to see if the supplements being sold contained the ingredients being advertised.

As a result of the investigation, all four retailers mentioned above received cease-and-desist letters demanding they pull many of their supplements from the shelves.[1] What did the prosecutors find that prompted such an action? Few of the supplements they tested actually contained the herbs advertised on the labels. This was not a question about fillers being added, quality, or potency—it was a question of defrauding the consumer. Additionally, several supplements contained potential allergens, such as wheat, which were not listed on the labels.[2]

In total, the investigators tested 24 different products, which claimed to be the herbs: Echinacea, garlic, gingko biloba, ginseng, saw palmetto, St. John’s wort, and valerian root. They tested the supplements by attempting to identify the DNA they contained. The DNA from the majority of supplements was either unidentifiable or from a different plant than the product claimed to be. In fact, only 5 of 24 supplements actually contained the herb the product label claimed to be. In regards to the case, Eric Schneiderman, the New York Attorney General said, “This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: The old adage ‘buyer beware’ may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements”[3]

Quality and Effectiveness

All of the supplements tested were off-brand products. While some brands may provide herbs of better quality, it is very likely that the suppliers who bottled the off-brand supplements tested also bottle for many other companies. One of the main problems with the supplement industry is the lack of regulation. Because the FDA does not consider supplements to be food or drugs, the industry is only loosely regulated and the FDA has little power to enforce their guidelines.[4]

All this adds further fuel to the fiery debate that already existed about the effectiveness of supplements. Are the people who believe they work getting the real thing? What about the people who have tried them and found no beneficial effects? Supplements are a billion dollar industry. It seems unfair to pay so much for something we know so little about. There has to be a more reliable way to boost health.

An Alternative Health Booster

The solution has been around for a long time. Fruits and vegetables are proven to improve your overall health, as well as boost your immune system during times of sickness. Making an effort to add a few servings of fruit and vegetables to your diet is an easy way to “supplement” your health. According to the CDC, in 2011 the average American ate just over 1.5 servings of vegetables a day. Three servings of vegetables a day is the recommendation, so there is definitely room for improvement.

In addition to three servings of vegetables a day, two servings of fruit are recommended. This adds up to “5 a Day,” which is the recommendation promoted by organizations such as the CDC and WHO. In reality, this amount is a minimum and eating more than this amount is preferred. For starters, you can add one more serving to your daily diet. Once that becomes a habit, add one more. When you begin to experience better health, it won’t be as difficult as it may seem now.

Serving Sizes

According to the USDA, a serving of fruit is measured as 1 cup fresh or ½ cup dried. In general, 1 cup of raw or cooked vegetables is considered a serving. But for raw leafy greens, a serving is considered to be 2 cups. You can visit the website more precise serving sizes. If you don’t want to count serving sizes, the USDA’s My Plate recommends you make half of your plate fruits and vegetables.

It is funny that we often search for foreign herbs or exotic remedies when we overlook the solution right in front of us. Pills—whether they are supplements or medications—cannot make up for our poor dietary choices. Fruits and vegetables are your best option. Someone may be able to pass off a greenish-brown powder as Echinacea, but it is impossible to imitate a fresh kiwi or slice of dried mango.

What Should You Spend Your Money On?

Now, I am not arguing against herbs or natural remedies. In fact, there are some that I use and I believe many others work. However, some people hide behind remedies when what they should be doing is improving their health daily. Diet should be the first line of defense. Your cash would be better spent stocking up on quality fruits and vegetables than on supplements of dubious origin.


[1] Kaplan, Sarah. “GNC, Target, Wal-Mart, Walgreens Accused of Selling Adulterated ‘herbals.’” The Washington Post, February 3, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Study: Many Herbal Supplements Aren’t What the Label Says.” Yahoo Finance, February 3, 2015.

[4] Kaplan, Sarah. “GNC, Target, Wal-Mart, Walgreens Accused of Selling Adulterated ‘herbals.’” The Washington Post, February 3, 2015.


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Jon Ewald, MD

Jon Ewald grew up in Minnesota and has a love for the outdoors. He obtained his medical degree at Loma Linda University, graduating in 2020. He is currently completing his residency in Radiology at University of Pittsburgh.

1 Comment
  1. On the behalf of the article I read, I believe my understanding of intermittent diet is close to clear, and stimulates my motivation to start it. Thank you.

    I also have a dear friend, an NP, who loves it and will guide me Thank you.

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