Herbal Supplements Controversy Spurs ‘The Sustainable Herbs Project’


| 2/13/2015 11:03:00 AM


Tags: herbalism, home remedies, film, Vermont, Ann Armbrecht,

Eastern Poland Botanicals Trade

Accusations of adulteration and fraudulent behavior in the wake of the New York attorney general’s cease-and-desist letters telling Walmart, GNC, Target, and Walgreens to stop selling certain herbal supplements are nothing new. Nor is sensationalist reporting that ignores the complexity and evolution of the global botanical industry. The way the press portrays this industry matters. Framing controversies in simplistic and outdated terms—in this case resurrecting the old claim that herbal remedies are snake oils foisted off on unsuspecting consumers—keeps us from having the conversations that do matter, about how today’s herbal supplements do work, how their ingredients are sourced, how their effectiveness can be validly tested, and even how the botanical industry affects sustainable agriculture and economic systems.

Given that 85 percent of Americans reported taking some form of nutritional supplement or herbal remedy in 2012, these are the discussions we need to be having. Understanding how plants work in the human body and how to measure whether they are safe and effective is complex, but efforts are under way to do just that. Contamination and adulteration of herbal supplements are real issues, but good companies have systems in place to address them.

Controversy Surrounding Herbal Remedies Testing

The issue of testing plant properties—at the heart of the New York case now being adjudicated in the press—is also not straightforward. In this case, for example, as the industry has been quick to point out, the DNA barcoding tests used to show that no trace of herbs listed were detected is an unproven method for testing finished plant-product ingredients. (DNA barcoding is used, accepted and valuable for identifying fish and other zoological items in foods). And in fact, the botanical industry has stepped forward to address the claims. The United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA) has announced its own investigation to test the products through third-party labs, and it will publicly share the results (see this Natural Products Insider article).

These more nuanced conversations are common within the botanical industry and the media would do well to begin focusing on the factors that influence efficacy rather than continuing to question the fact of it. Most consumers who purchase herbal supplements—$6 billion worth in 2013 (American Botanical Council in Yahoo News) are less interested in sensationalized accounts of supposed fraud, and instead want to know which remedies work and why. They want to know whether the additional cost of some brands is worth it. They want to know what quality control standards are in place and what these standards actually measure. And some want to go beyond that to find out whether the plants in their remedies are cultivated or wild-harvested, if they were grown or collected in the United States or overseas, whether they were overharvested and whether the people who cultivated and processed them were treated fairly.

Focusing on the Issues that Matter in the Botanicals Industry

This investigative depth is increasingly common in the energy and food industries, where groups with different perspectives are beginning to engage in complex discussions about the impacts of different systems of sourcing food or providing energy. These conversations have moved beyond arguing over whether organic is different from nonorganic food to consider most broadly how, through our purchasing power, we impact not only our health and well-being, but the health and well-being of the planet.




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