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The Hidden Threats in Your Herbal Supplements

From Echinacea to ginkgo biloba, herbal supplements are a $60-billion business in the U.S., but most of the products you’ll find at your local drug store or supermarket are mislabeled, contaminated or—in many cases—wholly without the herb you thought you were buying, shows a new study published in in the journal BMC Medicine.

Researchers from Canada and India tested more than 90 different herbal capsules, powders, and teas from 12 of the industry’s largest herbal-supplement manufacturers; they even had some shipped from retailers in the U.S. More than 30 percent of the supplements tested contained a substitution plant instead of the herb listed on the label, meaning the product contained none of the herb you thought you were buying. One-third contained “fillers,” usually grasses like rice or wheat, or contaminants not listed among the labeled contents. Just 16 percent of the supplements tested contained the right herbs without any contaminants, fillers, or substitutions. The researchers analyzed multiple samples of each product to ensure their results were accurate.

Obviously, this is a problem—and not just because you’re being ripped off. Some of the fillers and contaminants discovered are toxic or known to react with the listed ingredients in dangerous ways. Here are a few examples of herbs they found masquerading as other things:
• One of the products tested, labeled St. John’s Wort, actually contained an herb called Senna Alexandrina, an herb that's a Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved non-prescription laxative. It's also known to cause diarrhea, liver damage, and abdominal pain if ingested regularly, the researchers explain.
• Some Echinacea pills and dandelion supplements (used to calm an upset stomach) were contaminated with feverfew, an herb that can react with blood pressure medications and is a known allergen, particularly for those with ragweed allergies. It's also recommended that pregnant women avoid any products with feverfew, as it can cause premature contractions.
• Gingko products were found to be contaminated with black walnut leaves. Those contain a compound called juglone, regular exposure to which is suspected of causing tumors of the lung, skin and thorax.
The problem is that there’s very little regulation of vitamins and supplements at the FDA. Despite the fact that the agency has found everything from lead to cancer-causing preservatives in cheap supplements, they don't test or authenticate supplements regularly.
The takeaway: Pay attention to quality. The researchers aren’t releasing the names of the specific brands tested. So rely on third-party verifiers. Look for–certified herbal supplements, or those bearing either the U.S. Pharmacopoeia’s USP Verified Dietary Supplement or NSF Certified Dietary Supplement seals. These verify that vitamins and supplements, herbal or otherwise, have been tested for, and found free of, contaminants, and that they deliver what their labels claim.