Herbal supplements promise to relieve everything from migraines to insomnia, but unless you’re careful about where you obtain them, you might be getting more than you bargained for—such as pesticides or fillers. Lauren Schmitt, a registered dietician and personal trainer with Healthy Eating and Training in Studio City, California, cautions consumers to do their homework before using herbs for better health. “The FDA does not regulate herbal supplements the same way it does food and drugs,” she says. “The consumer may need to do some research on her own.”
Schmitt urges consumers to read labels carefully and to avoid herbs produced in China, India or Mexico, where regulations are not as strict—in some cases, traces of prescription drugs have been found in supplements from these countries. Schmitt says to stick with herbs organically produced in the United States and Europe and to run any herbal supplement you plan to take past the Dietary Supplements Labels Database.
“One of the things that’s really important is to get herbal supplements from a reputable source,” says Elena Michaels, a naturopathic doctor and psychotherapist based in Valencia, California. “Don’t buy discount products.”
If you’re uneasy about identifying high-quality supplement sources, don’t worry. We’ve eliminated some of the research for you by rounding up five herbal supplement companies that work to provide high-quality, organic, sustainably produced products. We asked them to tell us about what they do, from providing good products to contributing to their communities.
Overview: A family-owned herbal health-care company, Herb Pharm offers its supplements as liquid herbal extracts for maximum absorption.
Health: About 60 percent of the company’s herbs are sourced from its 85-acre, certified-organic farm in southern Oregon; no use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides, or genetically modified seeds; acquires remaining herbs from global sources that are also certified organic
Environment: Participates in the Blue Sky Renewable Energy Program, which allows the company to purchase 100 percent of its electricity from wind generators and geothermal heat capture; listed as a United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary and has received “Salmon Safe” certification, ensuring its land management practices protect agricultural and urban watersheds
Social: Donates 5 percent of its net profits to environmental organizations such as the Audubon Society and Sierra Club
Products: Liquid herbal extracts, wildcrafted herbs grown in natural habitats, and herbal oils and salves for topical use
Overview: Founded by a master herbalist in 1987, Gaia Herbs has its own herb farm, offering consumers products Gaia oversees from seed to shelf, in addition to herbs from certified-organic farms in the Pacific Northwest and Peru.
Health: Offers “Meet Your Herbs,” the first industry traceability program that allows consumers to trace herbs from seed to shelf, and “Gaia Organics,” a line of herbal extracts that is made with 100 percent USDA certified-organic herbs; has a scientific advisory board of naturopathic doctors
Environment: Committed to sustainable farming practices as well as land stewardship practices in the acquisition of wild herbs
Social: Helps train the certified-organic farmers from which it sources its herbs; promotes fair trade practices; farm team offers full-time employment in organic farming to immigrants
Products: Herbal liquid extracts, certified-organic herbal extracts and herbal teas
Rainbow Light Nutritional Systems
Overview: Rainbow Light Nutritional Systems is a 30-year-old company that specializes in superfood-based extracts delivered in formulations with plant-source enzymes and probiotics to aid in the absorption of herbs and supplements.
Health: All products are manufactured in the United States at a certified-organic facility and formulated by a board-registered dietician, certified nutritionist and fourth-generation herbalist with a Ph.D. in integrative biology; conducts purity tests on herbs to ensure they are free of heavy metals
Environment: All products packaged in Eco-Guard bottles made from 100 percent recycled material, reducing the company’s bottle carbon footprint by 92 percent; donates to the Plant A Fish initiative, which “replants” native species of aquatic animals and plants in environmentally stressed marine areas; adopted a California beach through the Save Our Shores program
Social: Since 1994, Rainbow Light has donated more than 24 million prenatal vitamins to some 100,000 women in developing nations such as Haiti, Kenya and Guatemala; also donates multivitamins for children
Products: Offers certified-organic products; allergen-free products; SafeGuard products, a line of supplements free of additives such as iron and copper that could interfere with prescription medications; and VeganGuard products, a line of supplements free of animal-derived ingredients
Overview: Founded 30 years ago by Master Herbalist Paul Schulick, New Chapter’s mission has always been to formulate its products based on the use of whole plants in their pure, unadulterated form.
Health: Offers whole food-based supplements sourced from organic fruits, vegetables, herbs and cultured probiotics to ensure easy absorption and smoother digestion; as most ingredients are organic, New Chapter offers an online list of its organically produced herbs and foods; never uses synthetic ingredients or chemicals in its products
Environment: Dedicated to sustainable, biodynamic farming methods; Luna Nueva, the company’s 200-acre biodynamic ginger and turmeric farm in Costa Rica, is Demeter-certified—the highest level of organic farming certification in the world; uses 100 percent recyclable packaging; composts, recycles or reuses 85 percent of company waste; started Sacred Seeds, a global initiative to save medicinal plants vulnerable to habitat loss, and makes financial donations to support rainforest conservation in Costa Rica
Social: In compliance with the California Transparency in Supply Chain Act, New Chapter audits suppliers to review compliance with the company’s environmental standards as well as policies against human trafficking and slavery; donates prenatal vitamins to women in Indonesia
Products: Herbal supplements as capsules, freeze-dried powders, liquid extracts and tonics
EDITOR'S NOTE: Since the publication of this article, New Chapter was bought by Procter & Gamble.
Barlean’s Organic Oils
Overview: A leading manufacturer of omega-3 supplements, Barlean’s Organic Oils began as a fishery in 1972 and eventually evolved into an organic seed mill that focuses on providing omega-3 fatty acid supplements and flax seed oil supplements to consumers. Family owned and operated, this farm now produces a variety of organic herbal oils and was rated the No. 1 health-food store brand for consumer satisfaction by Consumer Labs in 2009.
Health: Uses the cold-press method, which helps retain antioxidants, to process its 100 percent organically produced North American seeds into oils
Environment: Rated one of the Top 100 Green Companies in America by Green Patriot, an organization founded by Green Patriot Radio host David Steinman to honor eco-minded companies and lobby for more companies to adopt sustainable practices
Social: Donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to Vitamin Angels, which helps distribute vitamin and nutrient supplements to undernourished children worldwide, and Nourish America, which works to provide nutritious foods and vitamin supplements to impoverished American families, children and seniors
Products: Organic flax seed oil, coconut oil, olive leaf complex and green food concentrates
Note: While much of the information in this article is verifiable by third-party sources, some information is not subject to any third-party verification standards and was sourced directly from the supplement companies.
10 Supplement Ingredients to Avoid
Since herbal supplements are not regulated by the FDA, it’s important to do your homework before buying, paying special attention to the ingredients. Here are the top ingredients you should avoid. The FDA has warned against several, and some are even banned in European nations.
• Aconite: Can cause nausea, vomiting, low blood pressure or respiratory system failure
• Bitter orange: Linked to fainting, heart attack, stroke or death
• Chaparral: Can lead to liver damage and kidney problems
• Colloidal silver: Can cause side effects such as blue-tinted skin, and neurological and kidney damage
• Coltsfoot: Linked to liver damage and cancer
• Comfrey: Linked to liver damage and cancer
• Country mallow: Can cause heart attack, stroke or death
• Greater celandine: Risk of liver damage
• Kava: Risk of liver damage
• Lobelia: Can lead to low blood pressure, coma or death
It’s also smart to check the warnings issued by the FDA at Dietary Supplement Alerts and Safety Information or the alerts of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at Alerts and Advisories.
Give Herbs a Chance
When starting a new supplement, it’s wise to keep things simple. “It is best to stick with a single herb versus a formula of herbs to start,” says Lauren Schmitt, a registered dietician. “The body needs time to adjust to an herb. Allow time to figure out if there are positive or adverse effects on the body.”
It can often take weeks or months for a supplement to cause allergic or adverse reactions. “Not everything in the health-food store is safe for everyone,” cautions naturopathic doctor Elena Michaels. For several weeks after starting a new supplement, watch for common symptoms of an allergic reaction: shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, stomach pain, nausea, cramping, vomiting, skin rashes, hives and lightheadedness.