Shedding Light on Herbal Supplements
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
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
So how do you decide if an herbal supplement is right for
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.
Green means that one or more good-quality studies have been
done in people; yellow suggests that early data from human studies looks
promising; orange indicates that only animal studies have been done; and red
means little data on the supplement is available.
"Right now, only 25% of the listings are green or yellow,
but we'll update them as new information becomes available," says BNE
reviewer Paul Lachance, PhD, a professor of nutrition science and executive
director of the Nutraceuticals Institute at Rutgers University in New
You also can make informed decisions about herbal supplements
by following this advice from doctors, scientists, consumer advocates, and
- Research what's known about the supplement you're considering, paying close
attention to possible interactions with drugs or other supplements.
- Read the list of ingredients carefully to prevent allergic reactions.
- Tell your doctor what supplements you're taking.
- Choose supplements with multiple ingredients, instead of just one or
- Select products that meet US Pharmacopeia and Consumerlab standards.
- Don't rely on price as an indication of quality.
- Make sure the expiration date is far enough ahead that you can use the
- Continue to strive to reduce dietary fat and exercise regularly, and eat at
least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
- Wait 30-45 days before evaluating your response to a particular