If you’re taking herbal supplements, a new study shows that what’s on the label may not actually be in the pill. Researchers from the University of Guelph in Ontario analyzed common herbal supplements like echinacea, St. John’s wort, psyllium, and ginkgo biloba, and found a third of the samples didn’t contain the main ingredient advertised on the bottle. Another third included fillers, such as rice and wheat, that weren’t listed on the label, and could pose a danger to people with allergies. Others contained plants that weren’t disclosed, such as Parthenium hysterophorus, which causes nausea in some people. Fewer than 20 percent of the companies tested (all the manufacturers were kept anonymous for the study) sold products without any substitutes, fillers, or contaminants.
In the past 20 years, the popularity of herbal supplements has exploded, with an estimated 18 percent of Americans taking them and companies earning $5 billion annually. Advocates believe supplements can improve health naturally – manufacturers claim that echinacea can shorten the length of a cold, for example, and that St. John’s wort can fight mood disorders. Some professionals think herbal supplements can even provide a healthy alternative to pharmaceutical medications – such as taking valerian root instead of Xanax for anxiety. There are many studies on the efficacy of herbal treatments (recent studies from the National Institutes of Health on St. John’s wort, for example, show the supplement works no better than a placebo in relieving depression) but little research explores the idea that the supplements actually contain the herbs they claim. “At some companies, the ingredients are being neglected; others are just fraudulent,” says Dr. Pieter Cohen, a professor of medicine at Harvard University. “The combination leaves consumers completely in the dark in terms of knowing what they are buying.”