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Herbal Supplements: Are You Getting What You Pay For?

Herbal Supplements: Are You Getting What You Pay For?

A controversial new study published in the journal BMC Medicine found that one-third of 44 herbal supplements tested showed no detectable amounts of the plant advertised on the bottle. The researchers used DNA barcoding, a type of genetic fingerprinting, to determine the contents of the herbal supplements manufactured from 12 companies representing 30 herb species and selected from Canadian and American stores. Big newspapers like The New York Times immediately published an article based on the study’s results called “Herbal Supplements are Often Not What They Seem.” But perhaps the article’s title should have been “14 Out of 44 Herbal Supplements Tested in One Study are Not What They Seem.”

According to the researchers they were able to authenticate almost half of the products—meaning the products contained exactly what was listed on the label in 48 percent of the product samples. In one-third of the products, ingredients not listed on the label were found in the product. The researchers refer to these ingredients as “contaminants and/or fillers.”

After reading the study I was surprised that the sample size was so small and that the New York Times made rather broad statements based on such a small sample. They even indicated that “many” of the products were adulterated with ingredients not listed on the label. Now, I’m not impressed by companies adding fillers to their products in any way but I don’t even think “many” herbal products were tested in this study so it would be impossible to state that “many” were adulterated.

When I tracked down the original study I was also surprised to discover it read more like a promotion for the DNA barcoding technology used and even went as far as to conclude that this technology should be used in herbal products regulation. I was curious because I read a lot of studies and rarely come across ones that read like product placements or advertisements for the technology used. When I checked the patents database on DNA barcoding technology I noticed that the University of Guelph is a co-applicant for the patent on “DNA barcode sequence classification”—the technology being promoted in this study.

The following statement constitutes part of the study’s “scientific” conclusions:

“We suggest that the herbal industry should embrace DNA barcoding for authenticating herbal products through testing of raw materials used in manufacturing products. The use of an SRM DNA herbal barcode library for testing bulk materials could provide a method for ‘best practices? in the manufacturing of herbal products.”

Apparently I’m not the only one worried about the study’s results.  According to Stefan Gafner, Chief Science Officer at the American Botanical Council, an independent non-profit organization that provides science-based and traditional information to promote the responsible use of herbal medicine, the study was flawed.  In the same New York Times article he indicated that it was flawed because the bar-coding technology could not always identify herbs that have been purified and processed.

As some background when specific extracts are derived from plants (as in the case of curcumin extracted from the herb turmeric), the herb may undergo processing to allow the extraction process.

He added that “Over all, I would agree that quality control is an issue in the herbal industry. 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.”

What You Can Do to Ensure Quality Herbal Products:

Remember that herbs were the primary medicine of humans for thousands of years. A study of 44 products from 12 companies is too small to rely on for valuable herbal recommendations.

Choose high quality products or raw herbal materials from a reputable company. These products can safely and easily be made into teas or other natural medicines.

Work with a qualified health practitioner knowledgeable in the field of herbal medicine.

Grow your own herbal medicines. While it is not possible with all herbs, many common herbs can be grown on a windowsill and used whenever needed, especially for herbal teas.  It is much easier to identify the herb when it is still a full plant than when it has been dried, crushed, and added to capsules.

Subscribe to my free e-magazine Worlds Healthiest News to receive monthly health news, tips, recipes and more. Follow me on my site, Twitter @mschoffrocook and Facebook.

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Read more: Alternative Therapies, Conscious Consumer, Eating for Health, General Health, Michelle Schoffro Cook, Natural Remedies, Smart Shopping, , , , , , , , , , , ,

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Michelle Schoffro Cook

Michelle Schoffro Cook, MSc, RNCP, ROHP, DNM, PhD is an international best-selling and 17-time book author and board-certified doctor of natural medicine, whose works include: 60 Seconds to Slim, Weekend Wonder Detox, Healing Recipes, The Vitality Diet, Allergy-Proof, Arthritis-Proof, Total Body Detox, The Life Force Diet, The Ultimate pH Solution, The 4-Week Ultimate Body Detox Plan, and her new book The Probiotic Promise. Subscribe to her free e-magazine World's Healthiest News at to receive monthly health news, tips, recipes and more. Follow her on Twitter @mschoffrocook and Facebook.


+ add your own
10:11AM PST on Dec 28, 2013

My fenugreek smells like fenugreek.

12:45AM PST on Dec 26, 2013

Thank you Michelle for this thorough research and for sharing it. No wonder Canadians are so cynical about all products and govt decision-makers. Truth is an unknown word.

7:55PM PST on Dec 9, 2013

People will continue to try to continually down natural supplements. Other is always an ulterior motive, as the author mentions by tracing things back to the bar-coding tech co. That wants THEIR product to be the standard for "proving" an herbal product is worth something. Hopefully savvy consumers see through all this crap.

9:10AM PST on Nov 27, 2013


7:14AM PST on Nov 20, 2013


7:55AM PST on Nov 18, 2013

Thank-you for posting this informative article. One might consider consulting a herbal specialist when seriously thinking about using herbs to treat what ails them. Also, please remember that herbs, like vitamins/supplements & other medications, may interact with medications already being taken. Many think it's just an herb like the tea they drink or what they season their food with. Herbs are not & should be given the same consideration any other medication is given. I thank-you for reading this.

6:06PM PST on Nov 17, 2013


7:58PM PST on Nov 16, 2013

Thanks for the info. Great post.

7:09AM PST on Nov 15, 2013

Yes, grow your own herbs is the thing to do.

6:35AM PST on Nov 15, 2013


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