Herbal supplements, like echinacea, ginkgo biloba and St. John's wort, are taken by millions of Americans to supposedly help fight off colds, relieve mild depression, improve memory and any number of other unproven claims.
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In fact, we spend an estimated $5 billion a year on these pills that are unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration because they aren't considered either food or drugs. So how can we be sure the pills actually contain what they say they contain?
Uh, we can't. And they frequently don't. That's what was revealed by a new study that used a type of DNA testing that recently has helped detect fraudulent labeling of seafood.
Canadian researchers gathered 44 bottles of supplements sold by 12 companies and representing 30 different species of herbs sold in the U.S. and Canada.
Using DNA bar coding to identify the genes in the ingredients, they found that one-third of the supplements contained contaminants or fillers with no trace of the herb indicated on the label. Fillers included ingredients like powdered rice, soybean and wheat, and some of the contaminants "pose serious health risks to consumers," the researchers wrote.
Thirty of the 44 bottles had substituted unlisted ingredients, while only two of the 12 companies had products without contamination, substitution or fillers, according to the study.
For example, one bottle labeled as St. John's wort, which is taken for mild depression, contained only Alexandrian senna, a powerful herbal laxative that can cause chronic diarrhea and liver damage if taken for a prolonged time, the researchers wrote. Gingko biloba and echinacea supplements were found to be contaminated with black walnut, a serious health hazard for people with nut.
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As the New York Times reported, consumer advocates and scientists say this is more evidence the herbal supplement industry is riddled with questionable practices, while industry representatives downplayed the problem.
"Overall, I would agree that quality control is an issue in the herbal industry," Stefan Gafner, the chief science officer at the American Botanical Council, a nonprofit group that promotes the use of herbal supplements, told the Times, adding, "I don't think it's as bad as it looks according to this study."
Not surprisingly, David Schardt, a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group, had a different take: "Given these results, it's hard to recommend any herbal supplements to consumers."
Even the FDA, which requires dietary supplement companies to test their products for safety but only pulls products from the shelves if people become seriously ill, said most companies are ignoring the government's rules. "Unfortunately, we are seeing a very high percentage - approximately 70 percent - of firms' noncompliance," a spokesman told the Times.
So which brands should consumers avoid? Unfortunately, the researchers wanted to avoid singling out the culprits by name, so no product names were revealed in the study. Probably the best advice is remain highly skeptical and take all those herbal health claims with a giant grain of salt.
Photo: Ano Lobb/Flickr
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