What Herbal Supplement Labels Don't Tell Us

Don't leap blindly into herbal medicine. Learn the facts about herbal supplements and what to look for on herbal supplement labels.

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    Information typically found on the front of an herbal supplement label.
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    Logan Chamberlain—and an array of herbal supplement preparations—in the National Herb Garden at Washington, D.C.'s National Arboretum.
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    Information you might find on one side of an herbal supplement label.
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    Information you might find on the other side of an herbal supplement label.
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    Information you might find on the bottom of a supplements bottle.

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  • 171-herbal-supplement-labels-01-cover2.jpg
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  • 171-herbal-supplement-labels-04-other-side-label.jpg
  • 171-herbal-supplement-labels-05-bottom.jpg

Holiday stress. Winter colds. New Year's resolutions to eat better and live a healthier life. There are a thousand reasons to turn to natural remedies for a host of complaints at this time of the year. But be forewarned: you're going to find a dizzying variety of herbal supplement products at your pharmacy or local health food store. Just trying to decide which one to buy can cause confusion, irritability, and mental fatigue — possibly some of the same symptoms that brought you to the store in the first place!

The recent resurgence of herbal medicine is both blessing and curse. We're fortunate to have so many potent natural remedies easily available; their number grows daily. But we're unfortunate not to have easy access to information that will help us make the right choices. Which herb is best, say, for a sinus infection? Federal laws prevent manufacturers from providing straightforward dosage/benefit statements on their product labels, so you have to somehow figure out what to do yourself. Once you determine the herb you need, should you use capsules or tablets, liquid tinctures or extracts, or a tea? Should you look for the herb by itself or in combination with other herbs? How much should you take and for how long? Is there any danger in taking herbs with other medications? Is one brand or herbal preparation better than another? If three or four different brands or varieties of an herb are available, how do you choose?

Unless you read a lot of books or magazines on the subject, or get recommendations from a knowledgeable friend (or, better yet, from a trained herbalist), you'll just have to do your best at deciphering the fine print on the product labels.

Decoding the Product Labels

In thinking about how to explain the intricacies of herb labeling, I went to my local health food store and selected every echinacea product available in capsule form — seven products in all. Echinacea is one of the most popular herbs, so I thought it would make a useful example. Looking at the variations in content, information, terminology, manufacturing processes, claims, and dosages made me appreciate anew how confusing the world of herbal supplements has become. Here's what I found:

  • Three products were Echinacea angustifolia, two were E. purpurea, and two mixed both species. (Most research has been conducted on E. purpurea, though that doesn't prove it's better.)
  • Two products were made from above-ground plant parts, also designated "herb" (stems, leaves, and perhaps flowers), two were made from roots and/or rhizomes, two were made from herb and root, and one was made from juice pressed from the flowering plant.
  • Two products were standardized extracts, the other five were not.
  • Four products were Certified Organically Grown, three were not.
  • Six of the seven products bore batch numbers for quality control.
  • Three products had "use by" dates.
  • All the products had safety seals; two were packaged in brown glass bottles and the remainder in recyclable plastic.
  • One product employed cellulose capsules for vegetarians, and the remainder employed gelatin capsules.
  • Capsule sizes were around 200 mg each for the standardized products, and 380 mg to 450 mg for whole-plant products.
  • Prices for whole-plant products were $8.29, $10.49, $11.98, $15.98, and $18.95 for 100 capsules. For standardized extracts, prices were $20.95 and $21.95 for 60 capsules.
  • Recommended dosages ranged from one or two capsules a day at the low end, to two to three capsules two or three times daily at the high end. Four products recommended discontinuing use for two weeks after taking the herb for six to eight weeks; the others bore no such instructions.
  • One label cautioned against use by people with autoimmune conditions, and one advised caution for pregnant women and nursing mothers.
  • Some products were labeled sugarfree, one was "made with love." One was "cryogenically ground" (whatever that means!), others were harvested from the wild. In other words, these products were very inconsistent, and there was no easy way to choose among them. Reading the health claims was even more confusing. Here's what some of the labels said (some products made no health claims at all).

"Echinacea ( Echinacea purpurea ) helps promote general well-being during the cold and flu season."

"Well researched in Europe, this herbal supplement is commonly used to promote well-being during the cold and flu season."



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