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Warning: These “All-Natural” Pills Are Actually Dangerous

By on November 6, 2013
You’ve all seen it: Herbal supplements that claim to cure everything from the common cold to memory loss.

But according to a new study published in the journal BMC Medicine, you may not be getting what you pay for.

“Herbal products available to consumers in the marketplace may be contaminated or substituted with alternative plant species and fillers that are not listed on the labels,” says the researchers of the study in the online version of BMC Medicine. “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.”

Using a type of test called DNA barcoding, researchers tested 44 herbal supplement sold by 12 companies to see if they contained the same substances as indicated on the product’s label.

And the results were shocking.

“Most of the products tested contained DNA barcodes from plant species not listed on the labels,” says researchers. “Although we were able to authenticate almost half of the products, one-third of these also contained contaminants and or fillers not listed on the label.”

Of the number of supplements tested, researchers found that bottles marketed to contain echinacea, a popular alternative treatment for the common cold, actually contained weeds from invasive species in India and Australia. And for some bottles that claimed to have St. John’s wort, a popular anti-depression treatment, they instead contained either ground up rice or senna, a laxative.

In another instance, a gingko biloba supplement actually contained black walnut, an ingredient not revealed on the product’s label–something that could be potentially deadly for someone with a nut allergy.

In many instances, these herbal supplements didn’t contain the herbs as listed on their labels–instead, ingredients such as rice and soybeans were used to fill up the pills instead.

“This suggests that the problems are widespread and that quality control for many companies, whether through ignorance, incompetence or dishonesty, is unacceptable,” says David Schardt, a senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Given these results, it’s hard to recommend any herbal supplements to consumers.”

However, the American Botanical Council–a nonprofit group that, not surprisingly, pushes the use of herbal supplements, disagrees with these findings, saying that it does mean that all herbal supplements could be contaminated.

“Overall, I would agree that quality control is an issue in the herbal industry,” says Steafan Gafner, a chief science officer for the American Botanical Council. “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.”

Unfortunately, most experts don’t agree.

Bottom line? If you’re thinking about taking an herbal supplement to treat the common cold or some other ailment, chances are you’re not getting what you paid for. Your best bet: Buy the actual herb instead, not a supplement, to ensure you’re getting the real deal.

Readers: Do you take any herbal supplements?

Sources:
Study: Herbal Supplements Contain Secret IngredientsBioMedCentral.com
Herbal Supplements Are Not What They Seem to BeNYTimes.com

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