Your Fancy Herbal Supplements? Yeah, There's Nothing In Them

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We've got heartbreaking, if not all that surprising, news from the world of herbal supplements. New research that used DNA-sequencing technology has found that the herbal supplements we're taking are probably hugely misleading. In fact, there might not be any of the "active ingredient" in them at all. Even worse, sometimes the filler used is actually harmful to people's health. Read on, if you dare.

The New York Times reports that Americans spend over $15 billion a year on unproven herbal supplements. We take them when we're ill, to prevent getting sick, for mood enhancing, to remedy sleep issues, to combat infections — in fact, for most human difficulties, there are corresponding herbal remedies promising a more "natural" way to recover. But, since the industry isn't well policed — supplements have to actually hurt people before they're regulated — it's pretty easy to pass off your rice dust as an effective "cure." Likely, no one will be the wiser.

Canadian researchers tested 44 randomly chosen supplements (purchased both in Canada and the U.S.). Of the 44 tested, a full one-third of them contained no trace of the plant advertised. And, even when the plant was present, there were often fillers and other plants present that weren't labeled on the bottle.
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For example, of the two bottles of St. John's Wort (an herb commonly used to treat depression), one contained "nothing but rice, and another bottle contained only Alexandrian senna, an Egyptian yellow shrub that is a powerful laxative." Including a powerful laxative instead of an herb that could possibly treat depression? It doesn't really get any worse than that.

The issue here isn't whether herbal remedies work — there's evidence that some do — it's that there's often no way to tell whether you're getting the herb you think you're paying for or if you're getting some ground black walnut with a side of an ornamental plant from China (both of which were found in supplements). The inclusion of soybeans, rice, and nuts as filler (when unlabeled) is especially dangerous for those with allergies.

Who were the worst offenders? Unfortunately, the researchers won't specifiy the brands they tested. So, until there's greater regulation around herbal supplements, you might want to save your money. You really don't know what you're going to get. (The New York Times)