Understanding Labels: Choose the Best Herbal Supplement

A consumer guide to herbal supplements

| November/December 1998

One of the strongest grassroots campaigns in the history of this country resulted in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). The government was faced, on one hand, with a U.S. Food and Drug Administration initiative to control and limit consumer access to dietary supplements such as herbs and vitamins. On the other hand, it was faced with public outcry against such limitations. During the months that this issue was being considered, U.S. congressional representatives received more mail from concerned constituents than they had received on any issue in history except for the Vietnam War.

The resulting act bowed to the will of the people by allowing the unrestricted sale of herbs, vitamins, minerals, and other substances such as hormones and amino acids—so long as medical claims aren’t made for these products by their manufacturers. In other words, a manufacturer may sell a product such as echinacea, which is useful against colds and flu, so long as the package doesn’t say it will cure colds and flu.

So what can a manufacturer say about the usefulness of a product? Descriptions of how the product affects a body’s structure and the function of that structure can be made, such as claiming that ginkgo can increase circulation to the brain. But the label cannot state that ginkgo cures tinnitus. A product label for hawthorn can state, “Promotes heart health”; it cannot state, “Cures angina pectoris.”

Beginning last March, all new products were required to avoid making claims about curing disease and avoid mentioning any disease in relation to the product, including calling the product by a name that implies a relationship such as “Arthricure” or “Cold-B-Gone.” And after March 1999, all existing products whose name includes a disease condition must be renamed and all nutritional information must be included on the label.

So what we have is an imperfect compromise between consumers and government regulatory agencies. Manufacturers can allude to the possible usefulness of an herb and consumers have to make personal judgments—based on research, reading or hope—to decide which herb to use.

Making choices

If three or four different brands or varieties of an herbal supplement are available, how do you choose which to buy? Unless you read a lot of books or magazines and get recommendations from a friend or, better yet, a trained herbalist, you just have to do your best at deciphering the fine print on the product labels.



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