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Shedding Light on Herbal Supplements

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WebMD Health News

Aug. 28, 2000 -- As herbal supplements have grown into a multibillion dollar industry in the last few years, medical science has struggled to keep up, leaving many consumers and health care professionals with more questions than answers about the safety and effectiveness of these products. Now, private firms and advocacy groups are stepping in to help bridge the information gap.

For example, a company called Consumerlab.com does regular analyses of plant-based supplements, allowing manufacturers that meet its standards to use the Consumerlab seal of approval on their labels. Among the supplements it recently has tested are ginseng, ginkgo biloba, and saw palmetto.

Consumer Reports magazine also is expanding its botanical testing program. In a report on saw palmetto in the September issue, for instance, the authors suggest that the 100-year-old remedy may reduce symptoms of noncancerous prostate disease -- but only if you choose a brand that contains enough of the active ingredient. They also suggest that a lack of government regulation leaves consumers insufficiently protected against mislabeling and substandard manufacturing.

Not surprisingly, consumer advocates applaud these efforts. "The market is so chaotic that taking herbal supplements is like playing roulette," Stephen Barrett, MD, a retired psychiatrist and founder of the nonprofit group Quackwatch.com, tells WebMD. "It's mainly because the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act [DSHEA] of 1994 weakened the Food and Drug Administration. In fact, a recent survey showed that over 70% of consumers think the government should be more involved in regulating herbal products."

Alternative medicine experts share Barrett's concerns. "Given the lack of federal regulation, consumerism is moving things in the right direction, but we've still got a ways to go in getting the word out," says James Dillard, MD, DC, an assistant professor at New York's Columbia University and director of alternative medicine for Oxford Health Plans. "Research shows that self-prescribing is up and physician office visits are down."

The self-care revolution is driving this trend, says John Renner, MD, president of the National Council for Reliable Health Information and a professor of family practice at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. "Many adults want to make their own decisions about health care, but there's not a lot of unbiased information on herbal products, so consumer investigations are filling the void," he tells WebMD. "They also have a way of allowing quality to rise to the top."

Industry insiders agree. "The entire industry shouldn't have to bear the burden of a few bad apples, so we welcome these consumer investigations," says Mike McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association, a trade group in Silver Springs, Md. "But it's distorting to say that there's a lack of government regulation. DSHEA fixed a system that was broken, resulting in new manufacturing practices, cautionary labeling, and ingredients facts panels" -- lists of ingredients that are now required on supplement labels.

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