February 09, 2015, BY Matt Hughes

They promise "energy now," the chance to "lose up to 19 pounds" or promote "deep, healthy sleep," but what do herbal supplements really contain, and should we think twice before taking them?

On Feb. 2, the New York State attorney general's office released a report accusing four national retailers of selling herbal supplements that did not contain all of the ingredients their packaging claimed, and in some cases contained none of them.

While authorities in New York were preparing that report, Bucknell University Professor David Rovnyak, chemistry, and his students were asking a different, but just as relevant question about herbal supplements: What do they contain that the manufacturers aren't telling you about? What they found is alarming.

Some supplements students in  Rovnyak's Introduction to Molecular Spectroscopy course examined contained unlabeled caffeine, possible laxatives and niacin, an organic compound that can cause allergic reactions or conflict with other medications. In one supplement, they found an unlabeled derivative of the prescription drug Viagra.

"It's a molecule that's similar to Viagra but not identical," Rovnyak said. "There are underground laboratories, often offshore, where they alter Viagra so that it's a slightly different molecule. This is very frightening, because now you have a different molecule that hasn't undergone any FDA safety testing.

"It could cause irreversible organ damage," he continued. "It could have allergenic effect. It could be a carcinogen. We simply don't know, because it's a completely new drug. So this is a shockingly dangerous pill, and it was a surprise to find it."

I learned that you really need to think about what you put in your body," added Matt Miele, a master's chemistry student. "This experiment gave me a more practical feel for what I'm studying, to know that I could unknowingly buy something that could harm myself."

All of the supplements tested were purchased at retailers in central Pennsylvania. Some came from truck stops and gas stations, while others were bought at big box retailers. To identify their chemical constituents, Rovnyak's students employed NMR spectroscopy, a process similar to magnetic resonance imaging but applied on the molecular level. Placing a compound in a magnetic field causes its atoms to "ring" with a frequency that resembles its molecular structure almost exactly. The result is a series of peaks on a graph, which can then be matched to graphs of known compounds that have been published in scientific literature.

The Viagra-like supplement matched its prescription-only counterpart in at least nine of its peaks — an overwhelming number that rules out coincidence, Rovnyak said. But it also differed in several key areas, indicating it is a derivative.

In addition to unlabeled ingredients, Rovnyak's students also found a number of components they couldn't identify.

"It's disturbing to see signatures of molecules that cannot be attributed to any of the components on the label," Rovnyak said. "They likely represent adulterants that are not yet identified — foreign compounds that shouldn't be there."

Rovnyak prepared the experiment as an academic exercise, and its results aren't global or conclusive enough to have legal ramifications for supplement makers. Still, he said the results his students found should make anyone pause before taking supplements, even seemingly innocuous ones. While the Viagra derivative was identified in a male enhancement product, one product marketed as a metabolism booster derived from green tea and acai berries was found to contain unlabeled compounds, which Rovnyak suspects are laxatives.

"A lot of health supplement makers go to great lengths to appear legitimate," Rovnyak said. "Sometimes the ones with the really flashy packaging aren't the most adulterated. Sometimes the ones that go to the greatest lengths to imply safety are the most concerning of all."