Feature Archive

In My Opinion: Herbal Lessons From Germany

WebMD Feature

April 17, 2000 (West Lafayette, Ind.) -- All is not well in herbal America.

Today about one-third of the adult population in the United States uses herbal products, a retail market that has swelled to nearly $4 billion a year.

Yet in this mostly unregulated area of medicine, there is no way consumers can be assured that what is on the label is actually in the package, other than the reputation of the producer. Anyone can call him- or herself an herbalist and offer advice. The fact is most herbal-based books, pamphlets, and Internet sources are filled with exaggeration and are designed to sell products, not to inform accurately.

This is a scandalous situation.

Herbs have pharmaceutical properties and should be treated with respect and caution. Consider the conventional drug digitalis, derived from the foxglove plant. For decades it was valued here as a remedy for congestive heart failure, and is still widely used for that purpose in other parts of the world. But if it is misused, it can kill.

Under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, however, herbs are classified as supplements rather than drugs. This has two important results: On the one hand, manufacturers cannot make any claim as to the ability of an herb to prevent illnesses or treat symptoms. On the other hand, there are no requirements that they produce a product that meets set standards for uniformity and consistency. Under this weak law, consumers have nowhere to turn for help.