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Herbal supplement fraud: What consumers should know

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
What's really in your feverfew herbal supplement?

If you think taking herbal supplements is safe, it may be time to reconsider. A new study from the University of Guelph shows most ingredients in natural health products aren't even listed. What that means to individual consumers is health risks from unethical manufacturers who commit herbal product fraud.

One possibility is allergic reaction that you might never be able to track. Another is ingredients that could be harmful, especially if you have a specific health condition.

Many of the additives in herbal products not listed are toxic.

Professor and lead study author Steven Newmaster, botanical director of the Guelph-based Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO), home of the Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding, said in a press release: "We found contamination in several products with plants that have known toxicity, side effects and/or negatively interact with other herbs, supplements and medications."

The study, published October 11, 2013 in the open access journal BMC Medicine, used DNA barcoding technology to test 44 herbal products sold by 12 companies.

Rice, soybeans and wheat were found in 20 percent of the products that was not listed on the label.

St. John's wort was found to contain Senna alexandrina, a plant with laxative properties that is not meant to be used except short-term. Over time, Senna alexandrina can interfere with important functions of immune fighting cells in the gut. The plant is also toxic to the liver.

The study found one ginko product was contaminated with Juglans nigra or black walnut that could cause severe allergies for people who are allergic to nuts.

Feverfew was found in several products that can interfere with medications metabolized by the liver. It can also cause mouth ulcers, nausea and mouth swelling and numbness.

Fillers are commonly used in natural health products, but the problem with what the investigators found was that the consumer has a right to know they are there,

Rice, soybeans and wheat could also pose problems for people with gluten allergies or who are trying to eat 'gluten-free'.

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Newmaster also notes "There is a need to protect consumers from the economic and health risks associated with herbal product fraud. Currently there are no standards for authentication of herbal products."

Yet, there are several groups who continually petition against government regulation of natural products, saying it will take away our freedom. Many natural health proponents use drug company profiteering as a reason for distrust.

The current study authors say there are more than 1,000 companies worldwide that make medicinal plant products worth more than $60 billion a year and are used by 80 percent of health consumers.

The study authors concluded: "Most of the herbal products tested were of poor quality, including considerable product substitution, contamination and use of fillers. These activities dilute the effectiveness of otherwise useful remedies, lowering the perceived value of all related products because of a lack of consumer confidence in them."

What consumers should know

Many herbal products are shown to be effective adjuncts to health and well-being. But how can you know what you're buying?

Unlike the U.S., Canada has been regulating natural health products since 2004.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration states: "Generally, manufacturers do not need to register their products with FDA or get FDA approval before producing or selling dietary supplements.Manufacturers must make sure that product label information is truthful and not misleading."

Newmaster says "The industry suffers from unethical activities by some of the manufacturers," which is an important note for anyone taking vitamins, minerals or other natural health supplements.

Before you take any herbal or other dietary supplements, use the following checklist:

  • Do I really need it?
  • Will it interact with other medicines or supplements I am taking?
  • Is there good science backing the benefits?
  • Do I know for certain the supplements is safe?
  • Has my doctor approved the supplement?
  • Does my vitamin or supplement have the word 'standardized' on the bottle and the NSF International mark of safety?

Read the warnings, actions and uses of any natural health product you are taking or thinking of adding. You can search the NIH database to learn about herbal products and other supplements.

The new study shows many herbal product manufacturers omit ingredients that were discovered by the researchers who used DNA testing to uncover fillers, toxins and other ingredients. Herbal supplement manufacturers are indeed capable of fraud and may add other ingredients not listed in order to save money.

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Image credit: Wikimedia Commons