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.
A new kind of problem
4 hours ago in RRResearch