Herbal supplements called into question

Recent studies have called the herbal supplement industry into question.Alternative medicines, including herbal supplements, have become extremely popular in recent years.

However, recent testing has revealed that many of the herbal medicines found in stores across the U.S. don’t contain the ingredients they claim, and are instead often filled with weeds and ground rice.1 This revelation further highlights the lack of regulation and oversight in the herbal supplement industry.

Big business

According to The New York Times, Americans spend an estimated $5 billion a year on unproven herbal supplements.2 Many of those supplements claim to treat maladies ranging from the common cold to menopausal symptoms to cancer. But with the recent findings by a team of Canadian researchers, most of those assertions are being called into question, and health professionals are calling for greater oversight of the herbal supplement business.

Testing methods and findings

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal BMC Medicine, used a process called DNA barcoding, which is a type of genetic fingerprinting that tests a small, standardized region of the genome to identify plant and animal species.

When they applied the test to 44 of the most popular herbal supplements on the market, they found that many of them were diluted with soybean, wheat, rice and other fillers instead of the herbs the bottles were supposed to contain. In a third of the cases, there was no trace of the supplement that was advertised on the packaging.

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

Impact on health professionals

The ramifications of these findings for health professionals, including certified medical assistants and pharmacy technicians, are many. With these new findings, they can now have more confidence than ever that conventional treatments offer more effective outcomes than the herbal supplements many of their patients may have been taking.

But that isn’t to say the research completely discounts herbal medicines as a possible supplement to traditional treatment. The researchers tested 44 out of the approximately 29,000 herbal products on the market in the U.S., meaning that their findings were only partially representative of the overall industry. That means health professionals will still have to do their homework when it comes to recommending alternative therapies.

1 Quirk, Mary Beth, “Testing Reveals Weeds and Rice Fillers Where the Herbs Should Be in Herbal Supplements,” Consumerist, Nov. 4, 2013. http://consumerist.com/2013/11/04/testing-reveals-weeds-and-rice-fillers-where-the-herbs-should-be-in-herbal-supplements/
2 O’Connor, Anahad, “Herbal Supplements Are Often Not What They Seem,” The New York Times, Nov. 3, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/05/science/herbal-supplements-are-often-not-what-they-seem.html?_r=0