A Guide to Understanding Herbal Supplements

What you need to know to choose and use medicinal herb supplements.

| March/April 1997

  • It can be confusing to try choosing the best herbal supplements for your health. We can help.

Label muddle

Concentrated, potency, standardized, active. . . . ­confused? It’s no wonder—interpreting herbal supplement ­labels is trying, even for ­experts in the field. Commercial products offer a fast and convenient way to use herbs, but it’s often difficult to determine which herb will meet your needs and how much of it you need to take for it to be effective.

The first step through the maze of herbal supplement labeling is to understand the terms used to describe herb characteristics.

Why standardize?

Plant content varies with season, climate, soil, and other growing conditions. Who hasn’t bitten into a beautiful apple, only to find it dry and tasteless? Apple quality is a direct result of any number of variables, which include not only the amount of sunlight, water, and fertilizer the trees receive, but also harvest and storage conditions. The same holds true for herbs. When one or more of the variables fluctuates, the potency, purity, and activity of an herb also change.

Standardization is a means of reducing variability by specifying the amount of a certain compound or compounds that an herb product contains. For example, many ginseng products are standardized to contain 5 percent ginsenosides; ginseng leaves and root themselves contain anywhere from 1 to 7 percent ginsenosides. Taking a standardized ginseng product guarantees that you get the same amount of ginsenosides in every dose. When you take ginseng in fresh or dried form or in a nonstandardized product, the amount of ginsenosides you receive in each dose can vary considerably.

Standardized products usually contain certain levels of compounds known to indicate biological activity in pharmacological tests. “Active” compounds are those that have been shown to cause a particular effect. “Marker” compounds, although not directly responsible for an herb’s efficacy, nevertheless are always pres­ent when the herb has shown its effectiveness during testing, and their presence in an herbal supplement is thus an indication of its effectiveness. (Product labels rarely specify whether the standardized ingredients are active or markers, however.)


In most cases, only selected compounds of an herb are standardized. Most herbs have been used in their whole form for centuries, and few have been researched thoroughly; thus, the compounds responsible for their health benefits are often unknown. Without scientific studies, no authoritative reference exists to help manufacturers determine the appropriate standardization.

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