E.W. Kemble's 'Deaths Laboratory' in Collier's Magazine in 1906, via Wikimedia Commons.A big component of the pseudomedicine movement is the belief that pharmaceuticals are “bad,” whereas “natural” remedies, including herbal supplements, are “good.” What a lot of folks don’t understand, is that it’s all relative. Some pharmaceuticals are extracted from natural sources, and some “natural” things can, indeed, be very harmful. So the whole “artificial=bad, natural=good” correlation is, quite simply, bullshit.

I’ve blogged a couple times before about toxic substances that are found in some alternative remedies, but as the New York Times reports, a recent review of some common herbal supplements, confirms there are problems in that industry (WebCite cached article):

Americans spend an estimated $5 billion a year on unproven herbal supplements that promise everything from fighting off colds to curbing hot flashes and boosting memory. But now there is a new reason for supplement buyers to beware: DNA tests show that many pills labeled as healing herbs are little more than powdered rice and weeds.

Using a test called DNA barcoding, a kind of genetic fingerprinting that has also been used to help uncover labeling fraud in the commercial seafood industry, Canadian researchers tested 44 bottles of popular supplements sold by 12 companies. They found that many were not what they claimed to be, and that pills labeled as popular herbs were often diluted — or replaced entirely — by cheap fillers like soybean, wheat and rice.…

Among their findings were bottles of echinacea supplements, used by millions of Americans to prevent and treat colds, that contained ground up bitter weed, Parthenium hysterophorus, an invasive plant found in India and Australia that has been linked to rashes, nausea and flatulence.

Two bottles labeled as St. John’s wort, which studies have shown may treat mild depression, contained none of the medicinal herb. Instead, the pills in one bottle were made of nothing but rice, and another bottle contained only Alexandrian senna, an Egyptian yellow shrub that is a powerful laxative. Gingko biloba supplements, promoted as memory enhancers, were mixed with fillers and black walnut, a potentially deadly hazard for people with nut allergies.

Of 44 herbal supplements tested, one-third showed outright substitution, meaning there was no trace of the plant advertised on the bottle — only another plant in its place.

Many were adulterated with ingredients not listed on the label, like rice, soybean and wheat, which are used as fillers.

In some cases, these fillers were the only plant detected in the bottle — a health concern for people with allergies or those seeking gluten-free products, said the study’s lead author, Steven G. Newmaster, a biology professor and botanical director of the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario at the University of Guelph.

The full text of this study is available online (cached).

One might wonder how and why, in the 21st century, this sort of thing could be happening on such a scale. But there’s a very good reason for it: In the U.S. at least, the herbal supplement industry is more or less unregulated. Thanks to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (aka the DSHEA) enacted in 1994, as long as no explicit health claims are made about an herbal remedy, the FDA can do nothing at all about them. Not a damned thing. That’s right, it often is perfectly legal to sell “snake oil.”

Photo credit: Collier’s, via Wikimedia Commons.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.