Target: Dr. Robert Califf, Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Goal: Enact stronger and more comprehensive regulations for herbal supplements.
Genetic fingerprinting tests conducted on herbal supplements have found that they commonly lack an essential ingredient: herbs. Canadian researchers selected 44 bottles of popular medicinal supplements, sold by 12 different companies, and tested them using DNA barcoding to determine what ingredients were actually present. Their findings indicated that many of the supplements were falsely labeled, with the contents heavily diluted or replaced entirely with cheaper fillers. (To avoid targeting any one company, the researchers did not disclose any specific product names. However, their findings may reveal a larger trend.)
Some of the results of the study are even more unsettling – in tests of Echinacea supplements, a flower frequently used to treat colds and promote general wellness, the researchers found ground up Parthenium hysterophorus, an invasive tropical weed that has been linked to nausea, rashes, and flatulence. Bottles of Gingko biloba, believed to be a memory enhancer, were found to contain black walnut, which intuitively is unsafe for people with nut allergies. More recently, Bloomberg sponsored a study of aloe vera gels, and found overwhelmingly that no trace of the aloe plant was actually present. Instead, maltodextrin, a much cheaper substitute, was frequently found.
Herbs can be very powerful – in beneficial ways and harmful ones. Plants have been the basis of medicine throughout most of human history, and remain essential components in many of the substances we use to medicate ourselves today, from east to west. Herbal supplements often get talked down as something “hippie,” or little more than a placebo, which of course would prove to be true if supplement bottles are filled with imposters and potentially harmful substances. One researcher commented that “If you had a child who was sick and 3 out of 10 penicillin pills were fake, everybody would be up in arms.” Herbs are medicine, but the FDA does not regulate them as such. They simply put retailers on an honor system. Tell the FDA that this is not working – we need stronger regulations for herbal supplements, for the safety and well-being of consumers.
Dear Dr. Califf,
I am reaching out with concerns about false labeling in the herbal supplement industry. As you may know, several different studies have found overwhelmingly that supplements like Echinacea, Gingko biloba, St. John’s Wort, and others, contain little or no of the medicinal herb advertised. Researchers have found cheap fillers in their place, like soybean, wheat, and rice, and in some cases other plants that could trigger allergies or cause nausea, rashes, and flatulence.
Herbal supplements and remedies need regulation, just like any other food or drug. Americans spend billions of dollars every year on supplements for everything under the sun, and if they’re getting nothing more than a placebo it may be because the bottles don’t actually contain what they claim they do. Moreover, consumers could be putting themselves at risk using unknown substances.
The FDA must amp up regulations on herbal supplements. I urge you to take action on this, in the interest of public health and safety.
[Your Name Here]
Photo credit: BeiBeiJuliaWu