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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 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.

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 Brunswick, N.J.

You also can make informed decisions about herbal supplements by following this advice from doctors, scientists, consumer advocates, and industry insiders:

  • 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 two.
  • 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 entire supply.
  • 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 supplement.

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