Herbal Supplements? Some Are Just Rice and Weeds

Some herbal supplements could use a larger dose of the truth, a new study suggests.

Canadian researchers performed DNA tests on 44 bottles of popular supplements sold by a dozen different companies and found “that many pills labeled as healing herbs are little more than powdered rice and weeds,” The New York Times says. Americans spend an estimated $5 billion a year on supplements.

Unfortunately, the researchers didn’t name names. But in the best-case deceptions, you aren’t getting what you paid for. At worst, you may have an allergy to ingredients that aren’t mentioned on the label.

“Industry representatives argue that any problems are not widespread,” the Times says, and the supplement-supporting American Botanical Council suggested the technology used for testing could have misinterpreted the identity of purified and highly processed herbs. Nonetheless, here’s what researchers found:

  • One-third of tested supplements didn’t contain any trace of the plant they were supposed to.
  • Many more diluted the key ingredient with fillers such as rice, soybean and wheat.
  • Echinacea supplements contained a ground-up bitter weed “linked to rashes, nausea and flatulence.” The supplement supposedly treats colds.
  • Two bottles labeled as St. John’s wort, used for mild depression, didn’t have any of the herb. One had a powerful laxative, and another had pills made of just rice.
  • Gingko biloba supplements, used to improve memory, contained black walnut — which could kill people with severe nut allergies.

How does this kind of stuff happen? There’s very little real oversight of herbal supplements. Companies are charged with testing their own products. “The [Food and Drug Administration's] system essentially operates on the honor code,” the Times says. “Unlike prescription drugs, supplements are generally considered safe until proved otherwise.”

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Comments & discussion

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  • EASSS

    if there is no naming, it is not possible to investigate further.

    • Elizabeth Bennett

      exactly! this reminds me of the Chicken Nuggets story .. where we are supposed to guess which restaurant is feeding us nuggets that are 1/2 fat, 1/4 veins and 1/4 meat. The story did say KFC did use real chicken in their chicken nuggets, so that was helpful. And I suppose we can venture a guess as to which top McRestuarants are feeding us McFat … but it just chaps my hide when a story is posted that quotes all these percentages and figures for what we are eating and popping in our mouths … and obviously money was spent to find out these results … then to not tell us which product is the worst for us is just ludicrous …. harmful … beyond infuriating.

  • Judy Zoldowski

    If you take herbal supplements or vitamins, sign up with consumerlab.com. They regularly test these and report whether they contain the listed ingredients. Well worth the price!

  • Medicine-is-My-Game

    We do use some common supplements, and allergies and interactions could be an issue. I wonder which companies are considered honest with quality ingredients? I’m so sick of dishonest business, etc.

  • ModernMode

    You can put anything you want in a capsule, make any claim your want, and as long as you call it a “supplement” you’re good and the government won’t do anything about it. Years ago there was a movement in Congress to begin regulating supplements by making them prove their claims. The bribe, wait, sorry, the lobby industry moved in quick and shut it down.