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Shedding Light on Herbal Supplements

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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.

Unlike prescription and over-the-counter medications, herbal supplements don't have to go through a formal approval process that requires manufacturers to prove their safety. The 1994 law puts the burden on the FDA to prove that a particular supplement is unsafe and should be taken off the market. It also allows supplement makers to distribute literature about their products without any FDA review of their statements.

FDA Commissioner Jane Henney, MD, has said that the DSHEA provides all the legal authority necessary for the FDA to protect public health. And the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition offers information about herbal supplements and their reported side effects and interactions on its web site.

Consumer advocates say that's not enough, though. "The success of the pharmaceutical industry was built largely on standardization, so we should have the same strict regulations for standardizing herbal products," says Charles Inlander, president of the People's Medical Society in Allentown, Pa. "And we're just not forcing the issue enough with manufacturers."

In response to such concerns, US Pharmacopeia (USP) has set its sights on herbal supplements. Started by physicians in 1820, the nonprofit organization sets quality standards for drugs, vitamins, and dietary supplements. But due to the chemical complexity and natural variation of herbs, USP scientists have their work cut out for them. So far, they have set standards -- which cover quality, strength, purity, packaging, and labeling -- only for feverfew, ginger, ginkg, ginseng, St. John's wort, and saw palmetto.

So how do you decide if an herbal supplement is right for you?

One way is to refer to The BioNutritional Encyclopedia (BNE), a free computer service now available only at GNC stores. Developed by a team at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine, BNE uses a color-coded system indicating "stop," "caution," and "go" to indicate how much research has been conducted for more than 200 dietary supplements.

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