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What’s in Your Herbal Supplement?

Posted  December 12, 2013

By Gordon Schnell

The herbal supplement trade has grown into a multi-billion dollar business because these alternative remedies offer the promise of treating the old fashioned way some of our most nagging conditions.  No prescriptions.  No drugs.  No chemicals.  No synthetic compounds.  Just a simple dose of some unadulterated organic goodness.  What better way of tending to that nasty cold or flu, or dealing with that inescapable gloom or weariness than with a wholesome treat of herbal tea or that wondrous Echinacea plant.

That is, as long as you are getting what you think you are getting with your herbal remedy of choice.  According to a recent study published in the Journal BMC Medicine, led by Steven Newmaster of the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, there is a strong likelihood you are not.  Of the 44 herbal supplements Dr. Newmaster and his team tested, a majority of them were not what they claimed to be:

  • 59% were “contaminated” with a plant species not identified on the product label.
  • 32% “substituted” the main herbal ingredient identified on the product label with a different ingredient not identified on the label.
  • 21% contained product “fillers” such as rice, soybean and wheat which were not identified on the label.
  • Only 2 of the 12 herbal companies whose products were sampled provided “authentic” products without any contamination, substitution or fillers.

Pretty scary stuff for an industry that is supposed to be about all-natural, untainted quality.  And it goes way beyond simply not getting what you are paying for.  There are serious health risks that are implicated.

For example, a St. John’s Wort sample (for mild depression) had none of the medicinal herb but contained Senna instead, a powerful laxative with dangerous side effects.  Certain Echinacea samples (for colds) were contaminated with the invasive weed Feverfew which can cause severe allergic reactions and significant problems during pregnancy.  And a Gingko sample (for memory enhancement) contained black walnut fillers which is particularly hazardous to people with nut allergies.  Not to mention all the other fillers the testing uncovered which would be particularly problematic to those with Celiac disease or Gluten allergies.

This is not the first report of questionable practices within the herbal supplement industry.  In fact, Newmaster himself cites to prior studies that peg the frequency of herbal product mislabeling as high as 33 percent.  But Newmaster’s findings are causing more of a stir because they are based on DNA barcoding which provides a genetically verified fingerprint of exactly what these products contain.  As the New York Times reported, “because the latest findings are backed by DNA testing, they offer perhaps the most credible evidence to date of adulteration, contamination and mislabeling in the medicinal supplement industry.”

What does Newmaster conclude from all of this?  He argues for an industry-wide product authentication system using the same kind of DNA barcoding analysis he used for his study.  It would be “a minor cost to the industry,” increase “consumer confidence and preference” for these products, and “address the considerable health risks” from the rampant contamination and substitution that currently exists.  Others are calling for the FDA to get more involved and tighten up its lax oversight of these supplements which, unlike prescription drugs, do not have to be proven safe and effective before they can be sold.  There would also seem to be room here for an FTC enforcement action or private class action to go after those manufacturers acting the most egregiously with their product mislabeling.

Whatever happens here, one thing is clear.  Until something is done to clean up the “Wild West” manner in which this industry currently operates, fans of herbal remedies should proceed with due caution.  Particularly those with food allergies or who are otherwise in some medically compromised state.  As Newmaster rightly recognized, there is “considerable evidence” of the good that can come from these herbal treats.  But there is also a lot of bad that can come if they are not what they say they are.  So be careful and do what you need to do to make sure you know what’s really in your herbal supplement.

Tagged in: Healthcare Fraud,

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