Herbal Supplements: Are They What They Seem?

Annually, Americans spend about $5 billion on unproven herbal supplements. Hoping to fight the common cold or boost memory naturally, many individuals have eagerly turned to these types of homeopathic substances. However, what the industry has failed to convey to consumers is the fact that many of the same pills that have been classified as healing herbs are nothing more than a combination of powdered rice and weeds. As discovered in a Canadian study of 44 bottles of popular herbal supplements from 12 different companies, the pills were far from what they claimed to be. The seemingly popular herbs were found to be extremely diluted – sometimes replaced entirely – by inexpensive fillers such as rice, soybeans, and wheat.

The Canadian study was conducted using the DNA barcoding test, a type of genetic fingerprinting that has been successful in helping to uncover labeling fraud in the commercial seafood industry. Researchers involved in the study randomly bought different brands of popular medicinal herbs from outlets in both Canada and the United States. Among the findings from the study:

  • Some bottles of Echinacea supplements contained ground-up, bitter weed, as well as Parthenium Hysterophorus (a plant that has been associated with nausea, rashes, and flatulence)
  • Two bottles of St. John’s wort contained no medicinal herb at all. The pills from one bottle were comprised of nothing more than rice. The pills in the other bottle were made up of Alexandrian senna (an Egyptian yellow shrub that has proven to be a strong laxative)
  • Gingko biloba supplements were combined with fillers and black walnut

The study revealed that one-third of the 44 herbal supplements tested had been blatantly substituted with alternative substances, containing no amount of the actual plant that was advertised on the bottle’s label. Many more of these supplements were mixed with other ingredients – ingredients not listed on the label!

A professor of obstetrics at Stony Brook University medical center put it best when he said, “If you had a child who was sick, and 3 out of 10 penicillin pills were fake everybody would be up in arms. But it’s O.K. to buy a supplement where 3 out of 10 pills are fake…Why does the industry get away with that?” The recent Canadian study has left many individuals with similar questions and concerns. In a day and age in which more and more people are attempting to live healthier, more natural lifestyles, the herbal supplement industry may quickly be brought under scrutiny for its indiscretions.