Don’t believe everything you read on a label – especially if it’s on an herbal supplement bottle. A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Bioinformatics found four out of five herbal supplements are not what they claim.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
Unlike prescription drugs, there is no pharmaceutical oversight for herbal supplements. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires companies to verify that their products are safe and properly labeled. But supplements are exempt from the strict approval process that prescription drugs must go through.
“The big problem with the supplement industry is that there is no FDA oversight – at all,” says integrative medicine expert Daniel Neides, MD. Dr. Neides is Medical Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute. He did not take part in the study.
“Without any industry oversight, we cannot guarantee that what the label says on the bottle is actually in the bottle,” Dr. Neides says.
Researchers at Biodiversity Institute of Ontario tested 44 bottles of supplements sold by 12 companies. They found that four out of five bottles didn’t contain herbs as the label claimed.
Instead of containing the echinacea or St. John’s Wort touted on the label, the capsules either were diluted or replaced with substances like soybean, wheat and rice.
If you choose carefully and read the labels, though, there is hope of finding a safe and reputable brand.
The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention independently tests supplements to ensure you’re getting what you’re paying for. Because of this, Dr. Neides says to purchase only brands that are clearly marked with the USP label.
“This means that the supplement has been independently tested to prove that what you’re getting is what the label actually says,” says Dr. Neides.
Wellness Institute patients often receive prescriptions for supplements in addition to their daily drug regimen for chronic disease management, Dr. Neides says.
“It’s important for us to prescribe products that are pharmaceutical grade,” Dr. Neides says. “We require that the herbs and supplements we suggest to our patients are independently and DNA-tested to prove to us that what is inside the capsule is actually in the capsule.”
The dangers of combining
If you take over-the-counter supplements with other supplements, drugs, or herbs it’s especially important to be careful. Taken together, the combination could cause powerful interactions, similar to the side effects you might experience when mixing two prescription drugs.
“You need to know what is in each capsule,” says Dr. Neides. “If you’re taking a multitude of supplements, you need to be careful. There could be supplement-to-supplement or supplement-to-drug interaction.”
Researchers say mislabeled supplements also could be a health concern if you have allergies or are looking for gluten-free products. In addition, some herbs may cause cardiovascular problems, especially when coupled with certain heart medications.