Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Herbal Supplements: Are the Media Playing A Trick or A Treat?

By James J. Gormley

Courtesy of NOW Foods

Although specters of Halloween fright masks and ghouls in “trick or treat” garb are seemingly now just behind us, we were recently “treated” (or is it tricked?) to a PBS NewsHour segment entitled, “What’s Really in Herbal Supplements.”

In this factually challenged story, a PBS correspondent, Paul Solman, takes viewers through a mini herbal witch hunt with the goal of finding herbs for sale (online and at retail) --- black cohosh, ginkgo biloba and ginseng --- that either do, or do not, supposedly contain exactly what is posted on the label of each of these supplement products.

Of 26 random samples of black cohosh from Internet e-tailers and unnamed brick-and-mortar retailers, the anonymous lab used by researchers found that 30 percent of the samples (7 or 8) did not contain black cohosh according to the genetic botanical marker compound looked for in the testing.

One of the researchers interviewed is working on DNA bar-coding for plants that focuses on single genes rather than trying to map an herb’s whole DNA structure.

Since the PBS reporter’s story was actually funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which has a “Barcode of Life” botanical registry project with a number of grant recipients, including the work spotlighted in this sponsored segment being done at the New York Botanical Garden, readers may well approach this whole news piece with a modicum of skepticism, at the very least.

The “report” includes, but is not limited to, the following inaccurate statements, which I call myths, followed by … the facts:

MYTHS: “[Herbal supplements] are one of America’s […] least regulated industries, medicinal herbs […]”. “This is a[n] […] industry […] famous for loose regulation.”

THE FACTS: Although the category of herbal supplements is a supplement category, not a category of medicinal herbs, that aside

Dr. Daniel Fabricant of the health food industry’s main trade group, the Washington, DC-based Natural Products Association (NPA) wrote the following in an October 25th open letter to PBS:

“As a point of clarification, dietary supplements are fully regulated, not as a drug, but as a unique category of food […] The FDA regulates the safety, manufacturing and labeling of all supplements, while the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has primary responsibility for regulating the [marketing and] advertising of these products.”

MYTH: “[…] what you see may not be what you get.”

THE FACTS: According to Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association based in Silver Spring, MD: “The [PBS] story is not presented in a manner that indicates a clear understanding of current law. For example, products that do not meet label claims are unlawful and subject to seizure, a fact that was not communicated in the piece.”

In fact, the federal dietary supplement Current Good Manufacturing Practices (or CGMPs) requires that proper controls are in place for dietary supplements so that they are processed in a consistent manner, and meet quality standards.

The CGMPs apply to all domestic and foreign companies that manufacture, package, label or hold dietary supplements, including those involved with the activities of testing, quality control, packaging and labeling, and distributing them in the U.S.

According to the FDA: “The rule establishes CGMPs for industry-wide use that are necessary to require that dietary supplements are manufactured consistently as to identity, purity, strength, and composition.”

Translation: the FDA’s own requirements make it mandatory that what’s in the label is in the bottle.

MYTH: “And there’s one species, the North American species, […] panax quinquefolia, that is the preferred ginseng around the world […] It’s supposed to […] be the most effective.”

THE FACTS: North American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius (used for thousands of years by Native Americans) was re-discovered by a Jesuit priest outside of present-day Montreal, Quebec, in 1701, using descriptions of Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) from a colleague in Manchuria and assisted by local Indians, according to the American Botanical Council.

No one form of ginseng is more or less effective overall, but each supports different health areas. For example, North American ginseng appears to be especially helpful for body support when we experience colds and stress and to support healthy hormone levels in women while Asian ginseng appears to particularly supportive in the areas of blood sugar support, cardiovascular health, mental health and immunity.

MYTH: “[…] dietary supplements are the Wild West of self-medication.”

THE FACTS: Dietary supplements are foods and have nothing to do with the medication, or drug, categories. Far from being a Wild West industry or class of products, dietary supplements are hyper-regulated. In fact, attorney Peter Barton Hutt notes that the “safety provisions under the FD&C [Food Drug and Cosmetic] Act applicable to dietary supplements would appear to be stronger than those applicable to conventional food.”

There has been a great deal of good work that has been done at the New York Botanical Garden, including a 2005 study from Columbia University’s Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine, which used a high-performance liquid chromatography-photodiode array detector (HPLC-PDA) and liquid chromatography-mass spectrophotometry (LC-MS) to look at the whole range of four main triterpene glycosides (sugary compounds) and major phenolic (natural food color) compounds.

Who’s to know or say that the labs hired by the Barcode of Life-funded researchers were even looking for the right compounds to begin with, or were using the right test method, or the right plant part, or the correct solvent, or a whole host of other questions to which we do not know the answers.

Fortunately, there are a variety of CGMP testing and validation protocols and certifications available through reputable organizations which are used by
the supplement industry, including the NSF, the U.S. Pharmacopeia, and the NPA TruLabel® and GMP certification programs, to name only a few.

In addition, as consumers we can rest assured that the only Wild West out there today is in the mass media with the poorly researched anti-supplement stories that are published or broadcast, time and again.

To stay on top of reputable, informed information regarding dietary supplement regulation and safety, consumers can regularly visit and/or sign up for e-news at the following websites:

· The Natural Product Foundation’s Dietary Supplement Information Bureau (DSIB)

· A Field Guide to Dietary Supplements (DSIB)

· Citizens Speaking Out for Health

· Citizens for Health

· Alliance for Natural Health – USA

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