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Fillers, Contaminants, Substitions, Oh My! The Hidden Truth About Herbal Supplements

That picture is just a handful of the supplements I choke down on a daily basis. They’re gross, hard to swallow, and not cheap. Sometimes I wonder if I’m being duped by my doctor into taking them and they’re secretly laughing behind my back after I leave the office. I shell out a little extra dough to get whole food supplements in hopes of them actually containing enough of what they say they do so that I can actually benefit from them.

Most people say it’s a waste of money and the generic OTC version at the big box store will work just the same, but I have my doubts. Apparently I’m not wrong in thinking that. A study recently published in BMC Medicine reported that of 44 herbal supplements taken, more than half of them included a plant that the bottle didn’t claim.  A third of the samples contained fillers and other contaminants that weren’t listed on the label. Ingredients were substituted in 30 of the 44 samples. I can’t tell you how pissed off I’d be if I found out I’d been paying for nothing. Well not nothing, more like paying for rice, wheat, or soy. (As someone with allergies that alone frightens me.) Of the 12 companies the samples came from, only two of those companies had products that didn’t test for substitutions, contaminants, or fillers. That’s not very reassuring.

herbal supplements (372x500)Since herbal supplements aren’t subject to the same scrutiny that prescription medications are, it can be tough to know whether to trust the bottle or not. The answer seems to be “or not”. Some of the examples cited in the study were downright scary. It wasn’t just an issue of poor quality, although there was plenty of that as well. The bigger issue is that some of these herbal supplements actually contained a different herb than cited on the label. For instance, a bottle supposedly full of Echinacea was actually full of Parthenium hysterophorus, which has been shown to cause rashes and flatulence. People that are taking Echinacea are likely not looking to produce excess bodily gas, but to stop a cold in it’s tracks. Another example is just as unbelievable: a bottle of St. John’s Wort, which is used to fight depression, tested for Alexandrian senna, a yellow shrub. Alexandrian senna is a laxative. (Like you needed something else to be upset about along with the depression.) Black walnut was found in a Gingko biloba supplement, which can cause a fatal allergic reaction in some people.

The researchers were able to uncover this discrepancies in labeling using DNA barcoding, a form of genetic identification kind of like fingerprinting. I won’t even pretend I know what that entails, but it’s known to be pretty darn accurate (albeit not foolproof). Unfortunately it’s not something that can be done on every single bottle of every single supplement by some external regulating force. Individual companies, however, could use the technology to test their own product and state so on the label. That’d certainly make me feel better about picking a brand of supplements.

Who knows what else we don’t know about in all of those bottles? At least I feel better paying more for the company that has more information about the quality of their product and testing on their website than just picking up the cheapest bottle I can find.

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