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What's Inside Herbal Medicines?

Herbal or Verbal?

We’ve said it before but it’s more true than we knew – herbal medicines often don’t contain what they claim. New research looking at “DNA barcoding” found widespread fraud in herbal medicines.

How Do We Know?

Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario did a blind DNA test on 44 herbal products from 50 companies. A total of 30 herbs were researched.

What Did They Find?

Authentication failed for a full quarter of companies. The ingredients they listed on the bottle? Not present. For the other three quarters of companies, strange adulterants were discovered. One product supposedly containing St. John’s Wort instead included senna, a potent laxative. While 48% of products did contain what they claimed, 59% contained plant species other than those read on the label.

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Fully 83% of the herbal remedies engaged in product substitution. In 9% of the products only rice or wheat DNA samples were detected. Plus many fillers not listed appeared in the samples – including stuff like walnuts that can cause nasty allergies.

Why Is This Happening?

Herbal remedies and products is now a global market worth $60 billion. In the US there are 29,000 herbal substances or products available on the net or shelves. The profit margins on this stuff can be fantastic – even when the ingredients are real. And most herbal remedy manufacturers carefully do not list how much of the “active substances” their products contain. The biologically “effective” ingredients may be there, but in astonishingly small amounts. Some manufacturers, particularly of homeopathic remedies, however, do want such tiny amounts.

Is this Study FoolProof?

No. The DNA barcoding can miss “superrefined” products like homeopathic remedies containing .0000001% of the “active” ingredient. But the study is in line with other recent research that also claims massive, systematic fraud. More importantly, there’s lots of added stuff put in herbal remedies that is not listed – and which most researchers never bother to look for. These can include adulterants like senna and feverfew consumers will certainly not expect nor desire.

How Can Companies Get Away With This?

Easily. Though it can cage big bucks from Big Pharma when it catches acts out of school (Johnson and Johnson just got fined $2.2 billion for – among many other things – pushing antipsychotics to demented elderly and developmentally disabled children) – the FDA is pretty toothless around herbal remedies. Ask the many lobbyists how the system really works. At present, the FDA usually acts only when it finds direct and obvious public ham. Though it has shut down 4 – Loko (energy drinks plus booze) and Lazy Cakes (melatonin brownies that very effectively sedated children), authorities are overwhelmed with new product applications and the explosion of designer drugs – new stuff cooked up in chemical labs the designers “test” on unknowing kids and others who should know better.  To add to the problem, there are thousands and thousands of herbal products that come and go. Testing herbals would cost huge amounts – money this Congress will not allocate.

Do Herbals Work?

We know some of them do – or at least possess ingredients that in sufficient dose do something. Caffeine and melatonin do work. However, one tried and true marketing gimmick of herbal manufacturers is to take a half dozen separate herbals and throw them together in a supposedly “more effective” witches’ brew. That combined these “legal drugs” may cancel each other out, cause allergic reactions or become plain toxic does not seem to delayed the launch of these new products, which reliably pop out by the hundreds.

However, when such products have been tested, as at the University of Essex, about 95% are found to do nothing more than placebo – or be directly harmful. Perhaps by putting together “active herbals” with nothing more than soybean oil and corn starch the manufacturers are simply accepting the the real truth – that if these herbal remedies work it is because they work as placebos.

What Is the Solution?

The Guelph researchers want their DNA barcoding product to be the basis of “best practices” by the herbal industry. The message – we’ll test your stuff and show your ingredients are there.  That might produce a nice business for entrepreneurial scientists, make the university some money, and give manufacturers cover when they produce “real” products with infinitesimal amounts of “active drug.”

A separate institute – hopefully in some way non-profit – that looked at whether these drugs actually work and do what they claim looks like a better first step.

However, another solution is possible: the pure placebo plan.

Government Placebos That Work

The placebo effect is a major reason many medications of all types are effective. The brain has huge impacts on clinical efficacy. If people think something good will happen, perhaps 30-40% of the time it will. Placebos are powerful and often do not create side effects.

So perhaps it’s time for the FDA to get into this picture. They can produce a series of pure placebos – government laboratory tested corn starch or talc or glycerin – and sell them as “100% pure, government tested” ingredients. Made in any color of the rainbow, they can be sold to physicians of all stripes with the guarantee that they will contain nothing but what they claim on the label.

As a probably more profitable sideline, the FDA can then wholesale these ingredients to herbal manufacturers. They will then be able to advertise actual “100% pure, government tested” ingredients on the label. And then give people some assurance that what they’re ingesting includes at least some safe ingredients.

The present mystery of what’s inside many herbal remedies should provoke worry and fear. Instead, we've achieved indifference.

Matthew Edlund, M.D. researches rest, sleep, performance, and public health; he is the author of Healthy Without Health Insurance and The Power of Rest.

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