At Scambook, we like to encourage a healthy degree of skepticism when it comes to herbal supplements, natural remedies, and unconventional cures. Companies selling “all natural” herbal supplements and diet pills are notorious for ripping off consumers with monthly membership fees and bogus “free trial offer” scams.
Still, everyone’s got a friend or family member who swears up and down about the effectiveness of something-or-other, so it’s easy enough to shrug and figure that bottle of St. John’s Wort is worth a try. Except new research from a Canadian firm suggests that bottle may contain no St. John’s Wort at all.
Canadians Investigate Herbal Supplements
A Canadian research group did genetic tests on herbal supplements – basically going all CSI on the pills’ DNA. They tested 44 bottles of supplements from 12 different companies. The results called into question the practices of an already questionable industry. Salon points out:
“They found that many of the herbs identified on the pills’ labels were diluted with unlisted ingredients. A full third contained no trace of the advertised herb, which had been replaced entirely by cheap fillers.”
Some of those fillers were nut, soy, and wheat products: potential allergens that go unlisted on product labels.
In other cases, the fillers were outright toxic: an Echinacea supplement contained ground Bitter Weed (Parthenium hysterophorus), a plant known to cause rashes, nausea and flatulence. Not exactly what you’d be hoping for in a cold remedy.
And in a more than few cases, the fillers were the only thing in the bottle. In other words, there were no actual actual herbs in those herbal supplements. Seems like only 70 percent of consumers are actually getting what they paid for.
Supplement Industry Has History of Scams
Supplement industry spokesperson Stefan Gafner, at the American Botanical Council, admitted to the New York Times that the issues like substitution have long plagued manufacturers, even as he downplays the results:
“Over all, I would agree that quality control is an issue in the herbal industry,” Dr. Gafner said. “But I think that what’s represented here is overblown. I don’t think it’s as bad as it looks according to this study.”
But critics of natural supplements point to this study as further evidence of dubious practices in a dubious industry. But the researchers didn’t name any specific companies in the study, so no one has to cop to fake pills at this point.
Unfortunately, this also makes it harder for consumers to know which supplements to avoid.
Regulations and Oversight Not Up to the Task
The FDA doesn’t regulate nutritional supplements for effectiveness – herbal pill manufacturers only have to show that their products are harmless. Or, in FDA jargon: “Generally Recognized as Safe.”
But when some of those pills contain unlabelled allergens, or potentially toxic herbs, “safe” doesn’t seem like quite the right word.
All this is not to say that herbs don’t make good medicine – after all, herbs were the only medicine we had until a couple centuries ago.
But until the FDA can become more vigilant about nutritional supplements, be skeptical when you’re in the “natural treatments” aisle. If you have food sensitivities, make sure your supplements are independently certified free of allergens.
If you’ve had an adverse reaction, or a generally bad experience with herbal supplements, let us know.