If you’re taking any herbal supplements, a new study suggests that the pill may not actually contain what’s on the label. Common herbal supplements like echinacea, St. John’s wort, psyllium, and ginkgo biloba, were put on a test by researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario. The findings revealed that a third of the samples didn’t contain the main ingredient advertised on the bottle. Another third included fillers, such as rice and wheat, that weren’t listed on the label, and could pose a danger to people with allergies. Others contained plants that weren’t disclosed, such as Parthenium hysterophorus, which causes nausea in some people. Surprisingly, a mere 20% of the companies tested (all the manufacturers were kept anonymous for the study!) sold products without any substitutes, fillers, or contaminants.
Over the past 20 years, herbal supplements have reached the peak in popularity, with an estimated 18% of Americans taking them and companies earning $5 billion annually. Advocates believe supplements can improve health naturally – manufacturers claim that echinacea can shorten the length of a cold, for example, and that St. John’s wort can fight mood disorders. Some professionals think herbal supplements can even provide a healthy alternative to pharmaceutical medications – such as taking valerian root instead of Xanax for anxiety. There are many studies on the efficacy of herbal treatments (recent studies from the National Institutes of Health on St. John’s wort, for example, show the supplement works no better than a placebo in relieving depression) but little research explores the idea that the supplements actually contain the herbs they claim. “At some companies, the ingredients are being neglected; others are just fraudulent,” says Dr. Pieter Cohen, a professor of medicine at Harvard University. “The combination leaves consumers completely in the dark in terms of knowing what they are buying.”
The first problem stems from a 1994 law which allows manufacturers, rather than the government, account for the safety and accuracy of the products they sell, thus leaving the government with very little oversight of the herbal supplement industry. The thing is that herbal supplements like flaxseed oil, wheatgrass, turmeric, aloe vera, and spirulina (the top five selling products) do not require the same kind of scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration as pharmaceutical drugs or food on the market. The only oversight the FDA requires is that companies maintain a single standard: that what they claim goes into the bottle is actually in the bottle and they have the equipment to test it. But even this rule is not always met.
Mark Blumenthal, founder of the American Botanical Council, says “most – but not all – of the botanical ingredients sold in the United States are coming from overseas.” According to him, the reason for the industry’s problems is twofold: the dependence on imported ingredients and the idea of self-regulation, which leaves the manufacturers with the burden of taking on their own testing for quality. Consequently, there’s an inflow of tainted and even fake ingredients, claims Blumenthal, who hard-pressed the American Botanical Council to establish an independent program with the University of Mississippi to test for additives in products.
However, these checks are typically paid for by the company, and since much of them are done internally, there are no public reports of the verification.
Another problem which further adds confusion arises from health claims on bottles. Surprisingly, supplement companies are allowed to make loose assertions providing they don’t promise to cure or treat a disease. When a bottle of ginkgo biloba, for example, claims to “enhance memory, focus, and cognitive function” on the label, that is perfectly legal, despite the evidence suggesting otherwise – over a dozen studies of the herb were summed up in a paper by University of Hertfordshire researchers last year: “Taking ginkgo biloba supplements at any age to boost memory has no impact at all – and may be a waste of time and money.”
Experts recommend that in order to find the purest herbal supplements, consumers need to do their homework. First, they have to look for a seal from NSF International or the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP). The organizations award marks to fewer than 1 percent of the 55,000-plus products sold in America, so if you see it advertised on a bottle, be sure it’s not a phony. ConsumerLab.com, which also offers a seal, takes supplements off store shelves and tests them for accuracy and contaminants.
Second, consumers can also ask their doctors to suggest specific brands. With so many brands unapproved by NSF, it takes an expert educated in herbal remedies to know what is reliable, effective, and safe.