herbsHerbal supplements = snake oil?  We’d never have imagined that herbal supplements are filler-fraught frauds but new DNA testing of herbal supplements suggest that we are being taken for having taken herb purity for granted.  Like most others, We’ve occasionally used herbal supplements to boost our body’s performance:  echinacea, ginseng, green tea and gentian.  But recent science suggests that not only are some of these herb supplements contaminated but some of them are downright dangerous.

Americans spend an estimated $5 billion a year on  herbal supplements according to a recent New York Times article. But recent DNA tests show that many pills labeled as healing herbs are little more than powdered rice and weeds.   Using a test called DNA barcoding, a kind of genetic fingerprinting that has also been used to help uncover labeling fraud in the commercial seafood industry, Canadian researchers tested 44 bottles of popular supplements sold by 12 companies. They found that many were not what they claimed to be, and that pills labeled as popular herbs were often diluted — or replaced entirely — by cheap fillers like soybean, wheat and rice.  Of 44 herbal supplements tested, one-third showed outright substitution, meaning there was no trace of the plant advertised on the bottle — only another plant in its place. Among their findings were:

–  Bottles of echinacea supplements, used by millions of Americans to prevent and treat colds, that contained ground up bitter weed, Parthenium hysterophorus, an invasive plant found in India and Australia that has been linked to rashes, nausea and flatulence.

–  Two bottles labeled as St. John’s wort contained none of the medicinal herb. Instead, the pills in one bottle were made of nothing but rice, and another bottle contained only Alexandrian senna, an Egyptian yellow shrub that is a powerful laxative.

–  Gingko biloba supplements, promoted as memory enhancers, were mixed with fillers and black walnut, a potentially deadly hazard for people with nut allergies.Several products were contaminated with feverfew, an invasive weed that can cause “swelling and numbness of the mouth, oral ulcers, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.” It also may raise the risk of bleeding if taken with blood thinning drugs such as warfarin or aspirin.

 –  In an earlier 2012 study,   half of the plant products labeled as Korean ginseng were really American ginseng.  This is because Korean ginseng is more expensive and is marketed for different medicinal benefits than American ginseng.

In sum, the University of Guelph (Ontario) found:

  •    Just 32% of the herbal products tested contained the herb listed on the label and only that herb, nothing else.
  •     59% of the products contained plant species that were not listed on the label.
  •     32% of the samples contained absolutely none of the herb listed on the label, but instead contained some other plant species.
  •     9% of the samples were complete junk—specifically, three of the 44 products contained only rice and one contained only wheat!

Of particular concern to us is that the Canadian researchers found that some of the herbal products contained cheap, common fillers, none of which were listed on the products’ labels. For instance, rice and soy were found in 21% of the products, alfalfa was found in 16% of the products and wheat was detected in one product. Failure to list these fillers on product labels could spell trouble for consumers with an intolerance or allergy to those ingredients. As someone who endeavors to keep gluten out of my diet, the notion that herbs can contain unlabeled wheat fillers is deeply troubling.

While the tests results came under fire by the herbal supplement industry, they have not been scientifically discredited. Of the 12 companies with products that were tested, only two provided authentic products with no fillers or substitutions—and the names of those two companies were not revealed by the researchers. In fact, the researchers did not provide the brand names of any of the products they tested…which brings us to my biggest criticism of the Canadian study.

According to numerous analysts, including the prestigious Center for Science in the Public Interest, consumers should avoid Ginkgo Biloba, a common ingredient in dietary supplements, herbal teas, and some energy drinks.  They base their recommendation upon the government’s National Toxicology Program that found “clear evidence” that the ingredient caused liver cancer in mice and “some evidence” that ginkgo caused thyroid cancer in rats.

Similarly, echinacea — which so many had assumed is safe — is not only ineffectual as a cold remedy but some natural medicine practitioners caution that it may cause liver damage or suppress the immune system if used for more than 8 weeks. They urge people taking medications known to cause liver toxicity, such as anabolic steroids, amiodarone (a drug for heart rhythm problems), and the chemotherapy drugs to avoid echinacea use. What it does is raise your white blood cells to attack the infection in or on your body. If you are healthy or without infection the white blood cells will attack healthy cells and you do not want that.   Most recommend against using it for more than two weeks — if at all.

Other commonly used herbs such as St. John’s Wort,  Kava, Comfrey, Chapperal and Pennyroyal can be downright dangerous.   According to the National Institutes of Health and the FDA,  some of these supplements should never be used — yet they continue to be sold online and used by consumers.

What To Do

Personally, we are backing off from using any herbal product that hasn’t been DNA barcoding tested and certified.  If an herbal product you currently are using is working for you, stick with it . Otherwise, try a different brand from a reputable source and only one that identifies fillers used in the supplement.

Order your supplements through a highly reputable source or a licensed naturopathic doctor. These physicians have access to professional-grade supplements that are likely to have undergone quality-assurance testing and/or that have been shown to be effective for the doctors’ other patients.

Part of the problem is that although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for oversight of the supplement industry, it does not routinely test supplement ingredients nor frequently inspect manufacturing facilities.  Urge the FDA to use barcoding technology routinely on all products made from living materials, including herbal supplements, helping to make products safer and of higher quality.

David Schardt, a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the study “suggests that the problems are widespread and that quality control for many companies, whether through ignorance, incompetence or dishonesty, is unacceptable. Given these results, it’s hard to recommend any herbal supplements to consumers.”   As for now,  we’re in Mr. Schardt’s camp.