Oct. 25, 2018 -- In December 2016, Matt Miller got an email with an unusual request.
Would Miller, who grows and sells Venus flytraps from his shop in Ashland, OR, be willing to sell the exotic plants to an Iowa company? The company was looking for up to 120 pounds of flytraps for use in a homeopathic supplement.
Miller fell in love with the carnivorous plant during a childhood trip to the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, and he wasn’t interested in selling them as a factory feedstock. He told the would-be buyer no.
“If we knew for a fact they were valuable health-wise, we might perhaps pursue that,” Miller says. “But for us, they’re like our friends and family, so I don’t want to see them ground up into a tincture.”
Human-cultivated flytraps like the ones Miller sells aren’t rare. But while it may look like something from a distant tropical jungle, the plant’s natural habitat is a small stretch of the Atlantic coastal plain in North and South Carolina -- and in at least one case, naturally occurring flytraps have been scooped up by poachers who hoped to sell them for their supposed medicinal properties.
A few seconds of searching online finds flytrap extract selling for around $25 an ounce and up. While the sellers’ legally mandated fine print may note that the products shouldn’t be used to “diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease,” the large print touts improved immune systems and positive effects against a variety of diseases, from cancer to herpes.
But the claims about this exotic plant’s medicinal benefits have been “way oversold,” says Don Levy, MD, an internist and expert in integrative medicine.
“It’s an intriguing, interesting thing that researchers ought to pursue to see if it has anything to it,” says Levy, medical director of the Osher Clinical Center for Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. But he adds, “No way I would prescribe it to anybody, and I prescribe things likes this or suggest them all the time. This would not make the list.”
Supplements like Venus flytrap extract don’t have to be approved by the FDA or any other agency. But the FDA does police marketing claims, and federal law requires product labels to include disclaimers noting that the product isn’t intended “to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease” and that the FDA hasn’t judged any claims made.
One of the best-known products, Carnivora, is the subject of an ongoing FDA import alert, which claims the products are “unapproved drugs” that are mislabeled as “vitamins, nectar or juice” on external invoices, “but another invoice packed inside the shipping boxes identifies the true nature of the products.”
“Accompanying the drug shipment is a protocol which includes the dosage and treatment schedules. This document states that the drugs are ‘proven safe and effective in the treatment of cancer, chronic diseases and HIV infection in man.’ Fraudulent promotion by these means is evident,” the alert says
FDA spokesman Jeremy Kahn tells WebMD that dietary supplements are “one of the most challenging areas the FDA regulates.”
“This arena encompasses a vast array of products, and has a complex supply chain,” he says. And some cross the line from being marketed as simple health supplements to being classified as unregulated drugs that make exaggerated and unproven claims to treat disease.
Those claims “can lead patients to delay proper treatment and cause serious -- and even fatal -- injuries,” the FDA says.
Carnivora did not respond to requests for comment. The product’s website includes FDA-required language that statements about the product’s benefits “have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Individuals should seek advice concerning supplements and diets from physicians, health-care providers, and certified dieticians. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease in the United States.”
David Gorski, MD, managing editor of the Science-Based Medicine website, says doctors have dubbed that mandatory language the “quack Miranda warning.”
“They’re kind of meaningless,” says Gorski, a professor of surgery at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit. “ ‘It’ll boost your immune system’ -- well, what the heck does that mean? It doesn’t really mean anything. For it to mean something, it would have to say how does it boost your immune system, what part of the immune system does it affect, that sort of thing. And of course, boosting the immune system can sometimes be a bad thing, because that’s what happens when you have autoimmune diseases.”
While the FDA disclaimer is posted at the bottom of its web page, Carnivora says its product “Selectively Responds to Abnormal Cells” with “No Harm to a Single Normal Cell.” The website also says former President Ronald Reagan and diet guru Robert Atkins were customers.
Other sellers have been hit with warning letters because their labels made improper health claims or failed to include ingredients, proper addresses, or ways to report a serious adverse event.
Plants That Need Protecting
Venus flytraps are easily grown in bulk around the country in operations like Miller’s. But their natural range is extremely small -- a roughly 50-mile radius around Wilmington, NC, the same stretch of coast recently pummeled by Hurricane Florence. Scientists are trying to get the plants listed under the Endangered Species Act and notched a win in late 2017, when their petition got a favorable early review from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
State lawmakers made taking flytraps unlawfully a felony in 2014. A few months later, state game officer Fred Gorchess got a tip about suspicious activity around Holly Shelter state game reservation, a 64,000-acre preserve north of Wilmington. When Gorchess stopped a van coming out of the preserve, he found more than 900 flytraps hidden under a blanket in the back.
Gorchess says one of the men in the van told him the plants were going to be turned into medicine to fight cancer. “They were drying them out and grinding them up,” he says.
Three of the four men in the van pleaded guilty and got probation; a fourth fought the felony charge and lost, eventually serving 6 months in prison.
Big Claims, Little Evidence
One of the leading compounds touted in flytrap extract is plumbagin, a compound commonly found in plants that has been investigated as a possible weapon against inflammation and some types of cancer. But Levy says there are easier ways to get plumbagin -- like walnuts.
“When there isn’t a lot of lines of evidence, I find them kind of interesting and intriguing, but I wouldn’t recommend them to anybody,” Levy says. “Because there’s 100 other things I could recommend with the same minimal evidence.”
Gorski says that even if some of the compounds found in flytraps have medicinal benefits, they may not be present in the right amounts to have any benefit.
“The reason we purify drugs from natural products is because they’re usually not present in the plant or herb or whatever at a concentration high enough to be effective,” he says. The amount of any substance can vary, depending on how the plant is cultivated or where it’s grown.
The FDA says consumers should be wary of products that promise immediate results or sound too good to be true. Other red flags include a reliance on personal stories rather than published research, Gorski says.
“If they rely on testimonials instead of actual evidence and clinical trials, that’s a pretty good indication that they don’t have much in the way of actual evidence,” he says.
And while he’s a big fan of the flytraps, grower Miller flatly dismisses the claimed health benefits of his favorite plant.
“It’s just an unusual plant that draws attention, so people are just exploiting it to make money off it any way they can,” he says.