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A Pinch of This, A Bit of That

Those herbal supplements that promise to help you sleep or boost your memory often don't contain the herbs they are supposed to, the New York attorney general says.

An investigation conducted by the state attorney general's office used DNA barcoding to examine the contents of 78 bottles of herbal supplements from a dozen Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreens, and GNC stores in New York, the New York Times reports.

According to the investigation, a bottle of ginseng pills, purporting to boost "physical endurance and vitality,” was found to contain powdered garlic and rice; a ginkgo biloba supplement, meanwhile, contained powdered radishes, houseplants, and wheat; and other supplements contained filler ingredients, including powdered legumes that may trigger allergic responses in some people, that were not described on their labels, the Times says.

“Mislabeling, contamination and false advertising are illegal,” Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says. “They also pose unacceptable risks to New York families — especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients.”

Schneiderman sent cease-and-desist letters to the four national retailers and asked them to detail how they verify what's in their products.

The investigation was prompted, the Times notes, by one of its own articles that referred to a 2013 BMC Medicine study from University of Guelph researchers that found, again using DNA barcoding, that many herbal products suffer from product substitution, contamination, and the use of fillers. At the time, the Guelph team suggested that the herbal remedy industry use DNA barcoding to test the bulk materials they use.

Walgreens has removed the products from its shelves nationwide and GNC says it is working with the attorney general's office, but that it stands behind the quality of its products, the Times reports.

The US Food and Drug Administration does not review or approve herbal supplements, other than requiring companies to verify that their supplements are safe and accurately labeled.