Use Herbal Products Safely

A lack of oversight in the herbal supplement industry puts the burden of checking the contents of dietary supplements on consumers.

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by Getty Images/Elenathewise
Research the makers of herbal supplements you use.

Prohibitive health care costs and widespread false information have formed the perfect storm: a large market of herbal supplements making unregulated claims. Americans spend $5 billion per year on herbal supplements. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers these supplements “dietary supplements” and “safe until proven otherwise.” Some companies take advantage of that lack of oversight, and churn out pills and powders that may not even include the main herb being advertised.

A study published in BMC Medicine in 2013 found that 32 percent of the 44 products tested included substitutions for the main herbal ingredient, 59 percent contained species not listed on the label, and 33 percent contained undisclosed contaminants or fillers, including rice, soybeans, and wheat – which may be especially damaging to people with dietary allergies or intolerances.

Confronting labeling fraud as a consumer requires some investigation, and a recognition that “natural” isn’t a synonym for “safe.” The Mayo Clinic recommends reading labels carefully, taking one supplement at a time, following the supplement’s dosage recommendations, and researching the brands you choose. Stick to brands tested by Consumer Lab or the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, and look for scientific findings on the supplements you’re interested in. You can also look over the FDA’s list of brands that have been reported to cause adverse effects. After you’ve vetted a specific supplement, talk to your doctor. Ask about contraindications with any prescription medicines. Finally, report any complaints directly to the FDA, rather than expecting the company to deliver your criticism to the agency.

For more information on herbal supplements and a list of trustworthy companies, check out the Herbal Supplement Guide from Mother Earth Living.