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Shedding Light on Herbal Supplements

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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.

To keep pace with public interest, physicians should know as much about natural products as they do about pharmaceuticals, Columbia's Dillard tells WebMD.

"In Germany, 25% of all prescriptions are for natural products because doctors learn all about them in medical school," he says. Fortunately, many American medical schools now include such training as well.

For more information, visit the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition web site at www.foodsafety.gov.

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