Recently, the New York Times reported on an ongoing issue in the realm of herbal supplements. A group of Canadian researchers purchased a few dozen bottles of commercially available herbal supplements, and, using a fairly high-tech method for assessing their content, found that the majority included herbs not listed on the label, contained contaminants and fillers not listed on the label, or some were out-and-out substitutions. Only two of twelve companies tested had products without any substitution, contamination, or fillers. The people interviewed in the Times' article then went on to express considerable concern about the quality of the herbal supplements industry as a whole.
As regular readers of this column will expect, I'm going to take a middle-of-the-road approach to the article.
Some of the commentators took a very strong stance against the natural products industry, urging public outcry to rein in the industry. Underlying all of this is, unfortunately, an approach not intended to remedy the problem and create improved access to high quality products for consumers, but rather a strangulation of the industry. This isn't merely throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but then going on to sledgehammer the tub, pull out the piping, and burn the house down. While there is need for regulation and oversight of the industry, this overly aggressive stance isn't productive and isn't actually aimed at fixing the problem.
As Dr. Duffy Mackay of the Council for Responsible Nutrition noted in his comments, laws are in place that provide for adequate oversight of the industry, but the FDA, already tasked with oversight of the pharmaceutical industry and food industry, simply doesn't have the funding or manpower to enforce the necessary discipline on the supplement industry. The chronic underfunding of the FDA as long-reaching consequences that go beyond the supplement industry, however, so don't think that it's just the natural products people who are getting off the hook.
However, let's bring this back to a consumer's point of view. How does evidence of widespread contamination and substitution affect you? First and foremost, it's important to understand why this happens. It's not due to malicious business practices, or a desire to produce substandard products on the part of manufacturers. Rather, substitutions and adulterations happen in the supply chain that goes from field or forest to the supplement company - it's the many hands through which the products pass that add or substitute substances.
Knowing that, how are we to guard ourselves? The answer is that it's best to buy supplements and herbs from manufacturers that engage in extensive testing of all raw materials. The best way to do this is through working with healthcare practitioners who have done the work to ensure the quality of the products they recommend, or retailers who have likewise extensively screened the products they provide. Though many products out there are less than they claim to be, the study noted that a portion of products are exactly what they claim to be and are free of adulterants. The companies that manufacture and sell these high quality products can be counted on to continue to do so, and are worthy of your support. Practitioners and retailers who know the industry and have gone to lengths to assess the companies are likewise worthy of your support, and by working with them, you can avoid the pitfalls that are present in this marketplace.