AHPA takes Consumer Reports’ “Dirty Dozen” to task

By Shane Starling

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Medicinal plants Dietary supplement Food and drug administration

The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) says the Consumer Reports article that this week criticized the dietary supplements industry for being under-regulated and named a “dirty dozen” of supplement ingredients to avoid, is guilty of the kind of sensationalism it was established to rebuke.

Consumers Union, the not-for-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, ​was established in 1936 to empower consumers”​ and “provide a reliable source of information they could depend on to help them distinguish hype from fact and good products from bad ones” ​a standard the AHPA says it has failed to meet with its anti-supplements piece.

Good laws, bad actors

AHPA said the article’s focus on a few testimonials of adulterated products was a flawed approach to categorize a whole industry.

“Consumer Reports is attempting to draw broad conclusions about the regulation of dietary supplements based on anecdotes related to products that do not represent the mainstream,”​ said AHPA president, Michael McGuffin.

“This tone is unfortunate and misses an opportunity to express support for the efforts of responsible industry players to improve enforcement of the good laws already in place.”

AHPA said the “dirty dozen”​ – namely aconite, chapparal, coltsfoot, greater celandine, kava, yohimbe, colloidal silver, bitter orange, country mallow, lobelia, germanium and comfrey – betrayed, a lack of expertise”.

It noted that a similar list produced by Consumer Reports​ in 2004, and which it also criticized as being inadequately researched, had been modified this time around to include six new ingredients, including four herbs – aconite (Aconitum​ spp.), coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara​), country mallow (Sida cordifolia​) and greater celandine (Chelidonium majus​).

In specific it stated:

  • That aconite​ is primarily used as a homeopathic medicine, separate from any toxicity issues associated with the plant itself. The AHPA advises against aconite root being used in dietary supplements
  • The AHPA had since 1996 recommended against oral use of toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids such as coltsfoot​ and comfrey ​(retained from Consumer Reports​ 2004 list). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarded supplements containing coltsfoot as adulterated and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had moved against sale of such products
  • That country mallow​, if it was indeed a possible carrier of dangerous levels of ephedrine alkaloids as suggested, would be an illegal dietary supplement ingredient
  • That existing label warnings for kava​ (Piper methysticum​), chaparral​ (Larrea tridentata​), lobelia​ (Lobelia inflata​), and yohimbe​ (Pausinystalia johimbe​) are adequate.

The AHPA added that Nutrition Business Journal ​data indicated that total sales of products containing the 12 ingredients totaled about 0.2 per cent of the US dietary supplementsmarket.

Ample authority

AHPA’s criticism builds on a critique from the Natural Products Association (NPA) and the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), whose president and chief executive officer, Steve Mister, had a piece published in USAToday ​in response to the paper’s own piece supporting Consumer Reports.

Mister reiterated the industry position that it is not more laws, but funding that is required to better police the industry.

“Truth is, the Food and Drug Administration already has ample authority to regulate this industry,”​ he wrote. “What it needs to do is use it.

He continued: “If any of these 12 ingredients is truly unsafe, then FDA should ban its use. There may be reasons why FDA has issued advisories but stopped short of pulling products — but it's not because FDA lacks the ability to do so. FDA doesn't need new laws, just more resources and political will.”

In its editorial, USAToday​ wrote: “Spokesmen for the self-described ‘responsible’ part of the industry claim that the limited powers given the Food and Drug Administration are adequate to protect the public. But the record says otherwise. It's so hard for FDA to ban a product that only one such case has ever succeeded. That effort, involving ephedrine alkaloids, dragged on for years while weight-loss products that included ephedra were implicated in thousands of illnesses and some deaths.”

Nothing to see here

Mark Blumenthal, the founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council told NutraIngredients-USA.com there was little that was new in the report, as most the substances were already widely known as being “problematic”.

But he cited kava, which has scientific backing as a relaxant, as an example of a herb that had no place on the list, as there was no evidence of a “mechanism of liver toxicity”.

He said the ABC, a non-profit, was working on a comprehensive review of the scientific safety literature for the herb.

The industry veteran praised Consumer Reports​ for publishing a list of supplements consumers should consider taking, but said this was overshadowed by the publication’s, “sensationalistic cover and negative PR campaign, as well as the media's general tendency to pick up and promote the negative news story.”

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