Getting the best from functional foods and supplements
You’ll find a wide array of products containing herbs at health-food stores today. Everything from sodas to cereals to nutrition bars is touted as “memory promoting” or “stress reducing.” But how much of the herbs are actually in these products? How many bowls of ginseng cereal would you need to eat to get the amount of ginseng that’s in one capsule? Here are some tips to keep in mind.
Know your doses. In one brand of ginseng-enriched cereal, a serving contained only 60 mg of ginseng; an average dose of the herb is up to four 500 to 600 mg capsules per day. In other words, you’d need to eat at least eighteen bowls of cereal to get a mid-range therapeutic dose of ginseng.
Read the labels. In many products containing herbs, the herb’s dose is not given on the label—and often the herb is the last ingredient listed.
Compare prices. In some herb-infused salad dressings and nutritional bars, the herbal products cost the same as the nonherbals made by the same companies. In some products, such as juices, the herbal versions cost at least fifty cents more than their nonherbal counterparts. It’s likely—although not guaranteed—that the additional cost means you’re getting more herbs.
Perusing the shelves of your local health-food or grocery store, you may also have noticed unusual language on the labels of herbal supplements. The terms “standardized extract” and “active constituents” have to do with the way an herbal product has been prepared. Use the information below to decide which products are right for you.
Standardized extract. A product with this label contains a certain level of the herbal component believed to be most medicinally active. The material of each plant has been studied and analyzed to ensure that you’ll receive a specified dose of what is considered the most active part of the plant. There are two main types of standardized extracts: active constituent extracts and marker extracts.
Active constituent extracts. These extracts isolate the compound that’s believed to have medicinal effects, then they concentrate that compound to stronger levels than those found naturally in the plant. Examples of active constituent extracts: ginkgo (24 percent flavoglycosides), bilberry (25 percent anthocyanosides), and milk thistle (80 percent silymarin).
Marker extracts. With these extracts, the plant’s active properties are unknown, so a compound that’s characteristic to the plant is used as a “marker.” A marker compound helps in identifying an herb, but these products aren’t necessarily more or less effective. Because there is no widely accepted, universal method for manufacturing standardized extracts, different companies’ extracts may not even be standardized to the same marker. Examples of marker extracts: ginseng (5 to 9 percent ginsenosides) and green tea (20 to 50 percent polyphenols).
Whole plant extracts. Some herbalists disagree with using standardized extracts because they believe that removing extracts from a plant dilutes the synergy of all the plant’s phytochemicals combined. They believe that refining plants by standardization is comparable to the process of refining pharmaceutical drugs.
Herbs for Health, March/April 2000. Loveland, Colorado: Herb Companion Press.
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