Herbal Supplements? Some Are Just Rice and Weeds

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DNA testing showed that many herbal supplements don't contain even a hint of the herbs they claim to.

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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