A Closer Look at Herbal Supplements

BY Paul Solman  October 21, 2010 at 2:01 PM EDT

UPDATE | Oct. 22, 2010 from Paul Solman: Apologies to all who know biology: this story identified A,C,G and T as AMINO acids. They’re NUCLEIC.

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Editor’s Note: Paul Solman’s Making Sen$e segment on Thursday’s NewsHour looks at a new way to figure out if unregulated “supplements” — from ginseng to gingko — actually contain what they claim. The results may alarm you. They certainly alarmed us.

And we were wondering, what are the main reasons so many of us take herbal supplements? Take our poll and check out the results – all responses are confidential.


It turns out that medicinal herbs, and therefore all dietary supplements, fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Drug Administration. However, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 gives the responsibility for testing and ensuring safety to the manufacturer.

The FDA and industry are already under fire from Consumer Reports Health, which in August listed its dirty dozen — 12 supplements to be avoided because of clinical studies linking them to serious adverse events, including death. The list included supplements the FDA had advised against using, but were still on the market.

The CRH piece followed on the tail of a GAO report, released earlier this year, which found deceptive or false claims for supplements aimed at the elderly, claiming cures for cardiovascular disease and even Alzheimer’s.

The findings Paul presents in tonight’s Making Sen$e report is further cause for concern. If a bottle doesn’t contain the supplement on the label, what MIGHT it contain?

This leaves consumers with a predicament: a strong appetite to buy dietary supplements ($26.7 billion last year, according to The New York Times from an industry where the bottle may or may not contain — or do — what it claims.

But assuming what you read on the label is what you get in the bottle, you’ll still want to check out the CRH and GAO findings noted above. Here are some other places to turn for a moderate dose of reassurance:

U.S. Pharmacopeia A nonprofit organization, USP tests supplements of companies that volunteer (and pay for) their products to be tested to ensure they are meeting standards in categories such as quality and potency. If it passes, the supplement can be marketed as “USP verified.” A list of dietary supplements passing USP muster can be found here.

NSF International Another independent and not-for-profit group that tests and certifies products, including supplements, if they pass verification and safety standards. Certified products can be marketed as “NSF verified.” You can search their database by name or see a list of all certified dietary supplements.

Other fact sheets and reports can be found at the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements, the Mayo Clinic, and WebMD, an online and independently reviewed source for general medical information.

Photo by Ron Chapple/Getty Images.