Accusations of adulteration and fraudulent behavior in the wake of the New York attorney general’s cease-and-desist letters telling Walmart, GNC, Target, and Walgreens to stop selling certain herbal supplements are nothing new. Nor is sensationalist reporting that ignores the complexity and evolution of the global botanical industry. The way the press portrays this industry matters. Framing controversies in simplistic and outdated terms—in this case resurrecting the old claim that herbal remedies are snake oils foisted off on unsuspecting consumers—keeps us from having the conversations that do matter, about how today’s herbal supplements do work, how their ingredients are sourced, how their effectiveness can be validly tested, and even how the botanical industry supports or undermines sustainable agriculture and economic systems.
Given that 85 percent of Americans reported taking some form of nutritional supplement or herbal remedy in 2012, these are the discussions we need to be having. Understanding how plants work in the human body and how to measure whether they are safe and effective is complex, but efforts are under way to do just that. Contamination and adulteration of herbal supplements are real issues, but good companies have systems in place to address them.
Controversy Surrounding Herbal Remedies Testing
The issue of testing plant properties—at the heart of the New York case now being adjudicated in the press—is also not straightforward. In this case, for example, as the industry has been quick to point out, the DNA barcoding tests used to show that no trace of herbs listed were detected is an unproven method for testing finished plant-product ingredients. (DNA barcoding is used, accepted and valuable for identifying fish and other zoological items in foods). And in fact, the botanical industry has stepped forward to address the claims. The United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA) has announced its own investigation to test the products through third-party labs, and it will publicly share the results (see this Natural Products Insider article).
These more nuanced conversations are common within the botanical industry and the media would do well to begin focusing on the factors that influence efficacy rather than continuing to question the fact of it. Most consumers who purchase herbal supplements—$6 billion worth in 2013 (American Botanical Council in Yahoo News) are less interested in sensationalized accounts of supposed fraud, and instead want to know which remedies work and why. They want to know whether the additional cost of some brands is worth it. They want to know what quality control standards are in place and what these standards actually measure. And some want to go beyond that to find out whether the plants in their remedies are cultivated or wild-harvested, if they were grown or collected in the United States or overseas, whether they were overharvested and whether the people who cultivated and processed them were treated fairly.
Skepticism and Secrecy in the Botanicals Industry
This investigative depth is increasingly common in the energy and food industries, where groups with different perspectives are beginning to engage in complex discussions about the impacts of different systems of sourcing food or providing energy. These conversations have moved beyond arguing over whether organic is different from nonorganic food to consider most broadly how, through our purchasing power, we impact not only our health and well-being, but the health and well-being of the planet.
This larger discussion about how our choices impact broader environmental health is the conversation that the alternative health movement should be leading. Yet as long as the media continues to define the terms of the debate, reducing it to attacks on the very premise that plants can be used in healing, practitioners and reputable companies are forced to spend their resources proving in bluntest terms that, in fact, their products work.
Given this focus and the skepticism that misinformed reporting creates, companies are rightly wary of revealing more nuanced information about the challenges they face in sourcing and processing between 300 and 400 botanicals from all over the world for fear the media will jump on any more evidence to support their claims that the final products are fraudulent. The result is more secrecy in the industry, and more potential for skepticism.
The Sustainable Herbs Project
One new initiative is seeking to change this dynamic. The Sustainable Herbs Project is preparing to create an interactive documentary website where consumers can go to learn about the industry from a third party, one with nothing to defend but the right to understand. The site will enable users to follow medicinal plants from their point of origin through the supply chain to the consumer. Bringing this supply chain to life with stories from collectors, processors, traders and finished-product producers, with men and women involved in all aspects of the industry, the site will document what it takes to produce high-quality herbal supplements. By providing research-based information consumers need to be able understand the many facets of the herbal industry, the site will enable consumers to draw their own conclusions about efficacy and ethics, rather than relying on conclusions filtered through sensationalized press reports and corporate marketing campaigns.
In this way, we hope to lay the ground for moving beyond old alliances and debates to the more important discussions about quality, sustainability and equity that ultimately determine the value of botanical supplements. These conversations can help us not only feel easier about the herbal products we purchase, but can reveal how choosing certain products and supporting certain practices actively engages us in creating a different world based on the values that matter to us.
Photo by Ann Armbrecht: A wild collector brings wild-collected plants to sell at Runo, a herbal processing company in eastern Poland, near the Białowieża Forest.
The Sustainable Herbs Project is a new project by the producers of the award winning documentary, Numen: the Nature of Plants, the first feature length film on the healing power of plants. We are creating an online interactive documentary following medicinal plants through the supply chain to launch a more educated and responsible consumer movement supporting high quality herbal remedies and sustainable and ethical sourcing.