Do you take herbal supplements? The sad news is you might not be getting what you pay for...
The attorney general of New York State tested a variety of herbal remedies at Walmart, Walgreens, Target and GNC. Four out of 5 products did not contain *any* of the herbs listed on the labels, according to The New York Times. Instead, they contained other ingredients that could be life threatening to some people.
(Each retailer has pledged to cooperate, more or less, with the attorney general in an effort to improve the safety of consumers who take herbal supplements. Walgreens, in particular, is removing all the tested products that failed from all stores across the US. That's been the most strident response so far.)
The thing is, these are not isolated results. This is a common problem that's been detailed again and again.
In a 2013 study published in the journal BMC Medicine, Canadian researchers tested 44 bottles of herbal supplements bought in Canada and the United States. A full one-third of the samples tested were adulterated; they did not have any of the key ingredients they promised.
Cheap fillers like rice, soybean, and wheat were used in place of actual ingredients people were paying big money to take, according to The New York Times. (The study's authors decided *not* to reveal any product names to avoid singling out a sole company.)
What's Really in the Bottle?
Here's are some quick highlights of the BMC Medicine study's findings:
- Bottles of echinacea supplements contained ground bitter weed, a plant linked to rashes, nausea, and flatulence.
- One bottle of St. John's wort was wholly made of ground rice, while another contained a known laxative called Alexandrian senna. Neither of the 2 bottles tested contained the common active ingredient in St. John's wort called Hypericum perforatum.
- Gingko biloba supplements contained fillers and black walnut, the latter of which could be a potential threat to anyone with a tree nut allergy.
Twenty years ago Congress made a stupid decision to stop overseeing the herbal supplement industry. So now it's essentially the Wild West. You have supposedly legit companies spending heavy marketing dollars and putting garbage in their products.
Websites To Help Steer You Right
There's no foolproof way to protect yourself as a consumer, but I suggest you only buy USP (United States Pharmacopeia) certified supplements. The USP seal is the mark of the industry's attempt at self-regulation. Other than that, know it's buyer beware and you could be buying anything.
Several other websites will also help you sniff out the good from the bad when it comes to herbal supplements:
- ConsumerReportsHealth.org - Compare natural medicines (subscription required). Offers info on optimal doses and safe maximum doses. Also has a list where you can see which of the most popular herbal remedies might have contraindications with traditional meds.
- Nutrition.gov - Info on dietary supplements.
- MayoClinic.com - Herbal supplements: Has a guide titled 'What to know before you buy.'
Talk to Your Doctor
One final word of caution: Be sure to tell your doctor about any dietary supplements you take. That information will help him or her be aware of any possible drug interactions with prescriptions you may be taking.
New data finds 1 in 5 liver injuries that show up in hospitals have been from dietary supplements, according to The New York Times. This is triple what it was 10 years ago. Some people recover, some do not.
There are 2 groups most at risk: Teenagers and middle age women. Middle age women often take dietary supplements to get weight in control and could end up hospitalized or worse. Many times when someone does live, they live with severe health constraints for the rest of their lives.
This is serious stuff!