A recent report by independent testing company ConsumerLab found defeciencies in a selection of nine valerian supplements. And it ignited a skirmish of dueling press releases with the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA).
The report stated that only two of the nine supplements (or 22 percent) the company pulled from shelves met the standards that it used for evaluation. ConsumerLab tested for specific amounts of valerenic acids in an attempt to verify that the supplements contained the amount of valerian stated on the label. The company also tested for lead content, and failed two products that otherwise met the standards they set based on lead contamination above 0.5mcg/daily serving, the amount specified by California's Proposition 65.
The report elicited a swift and vigorous response from the AHPA. The group issued two press releases on the subject, the most recent on Dec. 6. AHPA took issue with the report based both on on testing methods and on the lead issue.
For its part, ConsumerLab kept pace in the press release skirmish, issuing responses of its own. The most recent release posted on Dec. 8 by Dr. Tod Cooperman, president of ConsumerLab, called AHPA's responses "patently false and misleading."
"We don’t make the parameters of how much valerenic acid should be in there," said Dr. William Obermeyer, vice president of research for ConsumerLab. The company used a 0.17% valerenic acid content standard because it said it is the most quoted standard in the literature, while noting inconsistencies in valerenic acid standards between the European Pharmocopeia (EP) and the United States Pharmacopoeia. The EP standards include a lower level – 0.10% – for cut and dried forms of the root.
"ConsumerLab arbitrarily chose to apply the 0.17% standard to all forms of valerian root in their attempt to determine the quality of these products," stated Steven Dentali, Ph.D., AHPA’s chief science officer, in one of the group's statements. “This is clearly not correct for products made with cut or fresh valerian root,” he said.
In one of its releases, AHPA claimed that a recalculation of the test results using what it calls the proper application of valerenic acid concentration standards for a given form of valerian would mean an additional two products would have passed ConsumerLab's test and another would have come very close. To be fair, AHPA's second press release took a step back from pressing that issue, saying that they made a mistake of their own in calculating the results for one of the products mentioned above, while staunchly standing behind their other assertions.
The ConsumerLab statement categorically rejected the idea that a recalculation of the test would yield different results. "The calculations are straightforward," the release stated.
AHPA questioned ConsumerLab's fixation on valerenic acid concentrations, saying that such measures are not the be-all and end-all of valerian supplement quality.
"AHPA makes no defense of products that fail to meet claims that appear on their labels," said Michael McGuffin, AHPA's president. "But herbal products that comply with all laws do not need to meet standards that are assigned by some third party and that go beyond the promises made to consumers on product labels."
"ConsumerLab likes to say it’s simple (to conduct these tests)," McGuffin said. "It’s not simple."
AHPA also took issue with the lead level that ConsumerLab chose to use. The Prop 65 level of 0.05 mcg/serving is inconsistent with other standards, McGuffin said.
It’s not the first time that ConsumerLab has reported finding problems with a range of herbal products in its testing program. “Herbals themselves generally perform poorly. There can be poor quality materials. They can be contaminated with lead or other heavy metals,” Obermeyer said.
So why did AHPA react more vigorously in this case?
"Some of my members asked me about it," McGuffin said. "It was not that we looked at this and decided that this was somehow worse than others. We believe some of the same things we found here, such as arbitrary standards, are consistent issues with ConsumerLab.
"When I did look at it became obvious that ConsumerLab made a mistake by holding a fresh plant product to a dried plant standard."
Obermeyer dismissed the reservations some in industry, including AHPA, have about ConsumerLab’s business model. ConsumerLab makes the results of blind testing of products public, whereas the results of product tests for companies who have paid ConsumerLab to test a specific product remain private, unless that company chooses to allow them to be publicized.
"In the reviews that we conduct, we go out and find popular brands, we buy them, we test them and we report everything we find," he said. "The goal is for consumers to get what they pay for, get the quality they pay for and get a product free from contaminants."