Buried at the end of the New York Times’ piece on February 3, Dr Cohen was said to find the AG’s results “so extreme that he found them hard to accept”. This quote was subsequently used by GNC in its February 4 press release defending its products but agreeing to comply with the AG’s letter.
Speaking with us, Dr Cohen repeated his reluctance to believe the AG’s results. “I think that this does not ring true. It’s way, way out there. If you’d said 10% of the products couldn’t be identified, then I’d have believed that, but 80%? That’s unbelievable.
“If I had been doing the work, and we’d found this, then I’d immediately ask to confirm it with a tried and trusted method,” he said. “It’s pretty straightforward for me why they couldn’t identify DNA if they’re extracts, especially if they’re extracted with methanol or ethanol and DNA doesn’t dissolve in that. You could say the results were to be expected.”
Dr Cohen has been labeled a critic and even an enemy of the industry following very vocal criticisms in the past, particularly during the DMAA saga, but he doesn’t see himself that way. “I’m delighted to be quoted by GNC because it isn’t me against the industry,” he said. “I look at it from my patients’ perspective. If they want to go and buy vitamin C or iron or calcium or whatever, then they should be able to get what’s on the bottle.”
“In the pre-workout space, if they want to buy these products and they don’t work, then the only thing they’ve lost is their money, but if these products put my patients at risk then that’s unacceptable.”
“I believe there are dangerous supplements out there, and I don’t think the FDA is doing its job to eliminate these from the market. So I think Attorneys General have an important role to play,” he added.
“But jumping in like this and basing an intervention on data that hasn’t been confirmed is likely to backfire and could scare off the other AG offices from moving on cases. This is a big mistake [by the NY AG]”.
Dr Cohen sees the NY AG’s action as an opportunity to engage in honest discussion about supplements, and that involves talking about the pro’s and con’s.
“Why is it that this [the NY AG’s action] has so much momentum? The results are not believable to me, but it seems to the larger population and the media that they are believable. Why is that? There is deep-seated concern and that needs to be addressed,” he said.
He also says the industry should change how it responds to criticism, pointing to the reaction to his report last year that found a small number of products marketed as dietary supplements previously recalled by FDA could still be found for sale six months later with the same adulterants (DMAA), or is some cases new adulterants (JAMA, 2014, Vol. 312, pp. 1691-1693).
The industry response was to question his data, or rebut his findings, he said. “It would be good if the industry reaction could be, ‘Maybe Pieter’s right and FDA recalls are not entirely working’.”
“Let’s move towards everyone embracing the science,” he said. “If I’m wrong, then I’ll admit it. I’ll be happy, delighted, to learn more from people who are experts.”