Herbal Supplements, Buyer Beware

If you’ve ever taken an herbal supplement and felt you didn’t get the desired results, it’s quite possible you didn’t get the actual product you thought you purchased. How do you know what you’re getting when you buy herbal supplements? As Cydney McQueen, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Pharmacy states on webmd.com, “Go for supplements made by big companies.” She goes on to suggest, “Major store brands or manufacturers of FDA-regulated drugs are the most likely to adhere to quality standards.” Sounds like a credible statement right? Wrong! It would be credible if the herbal supplements on many large retail store shelves actually contained the herbs they claim to. Recently there have been studies that indicate you may not be getting what you think you are, which could explain a lot; and this is just one reason why they may not have worked for you.

It appears that the FDA has not always been looking very closely when it comes to some major store brands regarding herbal supplements; and those major store brands have taken full advantage of it. Because herbs are classified as food and not drugs, they are not regulated as such and left to the manufacturer to ensure their product is safe, contain no harmful additives but do actually contain the product stated on the label. Yes it’s like the old saying, the fox guarding the hen house. Leaving supplement manufacturers to basically operate on the honor system. The FDA can however take herbal supplements off the market if they are found to be unsafe or contain ingredients not listed on the label. Which would require a bit of oversight that seems to have been lacking in the past. Per the New York Times, on February 2 2015, cease-and-desist letters were sent to four major retailers by the New York State Attorney General, who demanded that the retailers explain how they verify the ingredients in their herbal supplements. In this particular study, lab tests determined that only 21 percent of some of the products tested actually had DNA from the plants that were advertised on the label. The retailer with the poorest showing had only 4 percent of the products tested showing DNA from the plants listed on the label. Buyer beware, these statistics are eye opening to say the least.

For detailed information on the retailers and the specific brands tested, see more here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/02/02/health/herbal_supplement_letters.html?_r=1

Just to name a few, some of the more popular herbal supplements found on store shelves that had no trace of the herb itself include Ginkgo Biloba, St John’s Wort, Ginseng, Saw Palmetto and Echinacea. To complicate the issue further, some tested positive for ingredients not listed on the label such as known allergens making them potentially dangerous to the unaware consumer. Some of the ingredients found but not listed on the label were rice, beans, pine, citrus, asparagus, primrose, wheat, houseplant and wild carrot. One ginkgo product was contaminated with black walnut, which could endanger people with nut allergies. In my World this is called adulteration, not to mention false labeling and is unacceptable business practice for obvious reasons. As of today it isn’t surprising many of these products are still available online from at least 2 of the major retailers tested. Other retailers simply switched to another brand.


Another misconception regarding the effectiveness of herbal supplements is due to the method of preparation. For several years I’ve been hearing Echinacea is ineffective against colds and flu. One reason is because the minute you pull Echinacea root out of the ground it is essential to process it as quickly as possible. Meaning it is giving up the medicine as soon as it comes out of the ground. My method for processing Echinacea root is to tincture it immediately after rinsing it. This method is far superior in this case to digging the root, drying it, pulverizing it and putting it into pill or capsule form. When purchasing from major store brands there is no guarantee how long it took to get the medicine into the capsule or how long it has been sitting on the shelf. One fact to consider, herbs do lose potency immediately upon powdering them which is a necessary step for putting them into capsule form.


Yet another aspect of using herbs to consider is method of administration. Common sense comes into play here. If for example, you had a kidney infection and you wanted to take an herb to help clear the infection. It doesn’t make any sense at all to take a pill or capsule which will have to pass through the digestive process before having an effect. If I want to tackle the issue head on, doesn’t it make more sense to ingest the herb with water delivering it right where it needs to go? This is just one example of how an herbal supplement could seem ineffective.

Keeping it real

In conclusion, if you aren’t making your own herbal supplements, know who is. Most health care professionals are not trained in the use, preparation or administration of herbs leaving me to surmise that they may not be the best source of information or advice regarding herbs. I’ve seen statements on seemingly credible medical websites that I consider utterly absurd. I can only attribute this to lack of training, experience or both. While most Herbalists are trained in proper preparation, dosage and method of administration, in my research I have found that most manufacturers do not employ trained herbalists, herb specialists or anything of the kind. When I do begin to question….I get the same cut and paste answer: “Warning: Consult your physician prior to using this product if you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or have a medical condition.” Putting the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the physician even though most physicians have no training or experience with herbs either. When inquiring as to what type of tests are performed to ensure effectiveness and accuracy of content, the response I receive is woefully inadequate to say the least. This is a direct quote “I’m sorry Mari I have no information on any test done on this product.” This from a company that clearly states: “Thank you for contacting Customer Service, Where Quality Satisfaction is Guaranteed”.

Making your own herbal tinctures and capsules sounds so complicated over just popping a pill when in fact, it’s all very simple. Almost too simple and inexpensive to be true. The benefits are numerous including freshness, quality and guaranteed accuracy of content with no mysterious additives.

For instructions on making your own herbal capsules and a source for supplies see: http://thethymekeeper.com/make-your-own-medicine/

To make a simple Echinacea tincture using the folk method, simply dig the root, (you’ll need to let the plant mature for 3 years for this one) clean the dirt off, cut or slice it into a mason jar and cover with 100 proof vodka. Shake every day if possible and after 4 weeks strain into another container. The remaining liquid is your tincture. Put the herbs back to the Earth when finished straining. Simple, effective and potent to the highest possible degree.

More info on herbal supplements


Mari Marques is a Certified Herbalist and owner of The Thymekeeper. For questions or more information contact: Mari at mugsyspad@aol.com or 719-439-7303.

Learning herbs with The Thymekeeper. Make your own herbal supplements.

How to make capsules, pills, teas and tinctures. When to use one method over another and where to get supplies. We’ll also have hands on processing experience.

When: Sunday Junuary 17th 1:30-3:30

Where: The Thymekeeper 1870 CR 31 Florissant

Class fee: $20.00 per person

Pre-registration is required. Contact Mari at mugsyspad@aol.com or 719-439-7303


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