Feature Archive

Guiding Your Herb Search

A few tips on finding a reliable herbal medicine brand.

By Lynda Liu
WebMD Feature Got a cold? Maybe you've heard that the herb echinacea can help. But should you take the tea, the tincture, or the capsules? With or without goldenseal?

Smart shopping takes on new meaning when it comes to herbal products. Herbs can both cause and cure illness, but labels on herbal products are often unreliable. So consumers must do careful research before stepping into the store.

Lax Labels

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires rigorous and expensive testing before a manufacturer can make any health claims for its products. Few herbal products have been tested in this way, so labels on herbal remedies usually don't tell you what illnesses they're used to treat.

By law, an herb's label must say how much each dose contains. But many such labels are inaccurate. In an unpublished 1999 study conducted by the Center for Dietary Supplement Research in Botanicals at the University of California, Los Angeles, four of nine panax ginseng products did not contain the percentage of the key ingredient ginsenoside that their labels claimed. The content ranged from 30% to over 266% of the stated amount.

The sad truth is that no agency keeps a particularly close eye on herbs. "The Food and Drug Administration does not have any mechanism to do surveillance or monitor these kinds of products," says William R. Obermeyer, PhD, a former Natural Products chemist with the FDA's Division of Natural Products. During the time he was with the agency, it took action against a product only when it received reports of harmful side effects, he says.