Field of Science

Herbal Remedies and Supplements – Do you get what you pay for?

A great many of alternative, complementary, integrative, holistic, homeopathic, or naturopathic remedies or health products involve herbs. Herb has three distinctly different definitions: (1) any non-woody plant, (2) a savory seed or leaf mostly of Mediterranean origin (many are members of the mint or parsley families), (3) the guy who wears a Cubs hat and mows your lawn. Adherents of herbal remedies rely upon folk lore, personal experience, and testimonials from others’ personal experiences as evidence of efficaciousness, all of which are confounded by the placebo effect and other uncontrolled variables (dosage, plant material, storage, etc.). When these are taken into account, many popular herbal remedies, e.g., Echinacea, fail to provide any more benefit than a placebo.
But at a more basic level, when you buy some herbal health products, what are you getting? When you buy a bottle labeled GINKGO BILOBA, you have this crazy idea that ginkgo is what is inside, but maybe not. The Phactor has been asked to identify crumbled up, dried, green, plant material on more than one occasion, and quite frankly from an anatomical perspective, you cannot find out too much. New molecular methods can provide an alternative via DNA fingerprints that look at characteristic components of the genome as a means of determining if a particular plant is present or not. Unfortunately while such testing is positive when something is absent, you still may not have a positive identification unless the DNA fingerprint profile matches another plant you have a profile for.
So how’s it going out there in herbal health supplement land? Not well, if the DNA fingerprint testing conducted at the New York Botanical Garden is any indication of the quality of herbal health products. Many herbal teas are so diluted by a cheaper/tastier filler that an effective dosage seems unlikely, so you certainly are not getting very much of what you are paying for. Only one in 4 samples that were supposed to have ginkgo had the DNA fingerprint of ginkgo, and since ginkgo is an extremely common tree in cultivation and extremely easy to identify, even for amateurs, its absence from herbal supplements must be considered deliberate. Or maybe they just forgot. Although the testing is still dealing with smallish sample sizes, if the materials tested are representative at all, then the vast majority of the herbal supplement industry would seem to be a fraud on more than one level. Lastly the botanist in this interview, Dennis Stevenson, is one of my long-time professional friends.


mr_subjunctive said...

Hence the "Quack Miranda Warning" they're all forced to print on the product somewhere:

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Not that the pharmaceutical companies are beacons of honesty in which we should all have total faith, but herbal supplements are a whole different level of cynical marketing. I mean, if they thought they really had something that worked, they'd get the product evaluated by the FDA and make kajillions of dollars selling it for fifty times the price as an actual pharmaceutical. Instead, they make vague claims (boosts the immune system; provides energy) and then post the Quack Miranda so they can't be pinned down or sued. Then you just sit back and let the money roll in.

It ought to be illegal. It used to be illegal (until I think 1994). But apparently snake-oil salesmen are part of the human condition, in one form or another.

new on the market said...

actually, most companies who market herbal supplements are prevented from stating claims of "healing" or "curing" of any diseases by the FDA. the pharmaceutical companies don't want you to cure diseases without any other than their products. imagine a public who knew that pharmaceutical medicines were not the be all, end all in medical practice. indeed, it is herbs and homeopathic remedies

The Phytophactor said...

Ooo! Nothing like a little conspiracy theory to mix in with the lack of evidence to make those placebos work all the better!

meristemi said...

... and the scenario isn't any better in the spice market. Here's a personal contribution, with my own experience with oregano in Europe:

Home Remedies said...

Thanks for the information.