Herbal Remedy Scam

It’s a quality control problem at best, and outright fraud at worst.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Guelph used genetic analysis to study a range of commercial herbal remedies and found a shocking disparity between what was on the label and what’s actually in the bottle.

According to the Vancouver Sun, the researchers looked at 44 herbal products sold by 12 companies, using DNA ‘barcode testing’ to determine what plant species were in the bottle.

The result: some products contained other generally inert species of plants (for example wheat, to which some people are allergic, and rice, to which some people are allergic), without those ingredients being listed on the label. Other products were adulterated with potentially toxic plants like St. John’s wort or senna. Others simply contained none of the active ingredient they were supposed to contain. And yet these products are commercially available at a major pharmacy chain near you.

The study didn’t name names — the study was effectively about quality control within the industry, rather than about naming-and-shaming particular companies. But it’s a damning indictment for the industry quite generally. (Just two companies among the 12 in the study sold products that were just what they said they were.)

Of course, many readers will know that this is not the first reason we’ve had to doubt the integrity of the herbal remedy industry, or the ‘natural’ health product industry more generally. As others have written elsewhere (including pharmacists with the scientific and critical-thinking chops to know the difference), Canada’s regulations regarding natural health products leave much to be desired.

But it’s nothing to laugh about. Unlike homeopathic remedies, which (unless adulterated) generally contain no active ingredients at all, herbal remedies can have actual effects, though those effects may not live up to the claims implied by their labels. Herbal remedies, while under-regulated, can at least have real biological effects. That’s a source of pride for makers of herbals, situated as they are within an alternative-medicine industry that is rife with outright fraud and delusion.

But it also means that the honest bottlers of herbal remedies should be at the front of the line, lobbying government hard for stricter regulations. Perhaps even more crucially they should be doing their best to convince the major chains that there’s a difference between them and the companies whose products failed the Guelph study so miserably. In the end, it’s as much an ethical matter as a matter of self-interest. The public deserves to be better served, and who better than those within the industry itself to make sure that it happens?

7 comments so far

  1. trustacrossamerica on

    Did the researchers receive outside funding? If so, from who?

    Sent from my iPhone

    • Chris MacDonald on

      We won’t have that information until Friday when the paper is published.

  2. Marvin Edwards on

    A lot of people complain about government regulation, but rules result from bad behavior. Sounds like the FDA and whatever is Canada’s equivalent need authority over herbal as well as other “remedies”.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Marvin:

      Health Canada has the authority. It just hasn’t used it. But charges could certainly be laid based on the kind of tests that this study is talking about.

      Chris

  3. Chris MacDonald on

    According to the manuscript: “This research was supported by the grants to SGN from the International Science and Technology Partnership Canada and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Genome Canada through the Ontario Genomics Institute, and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.”

  4. […] Herbal Remedy Scam October 15, 2013 Rexall’s Dubious Homeopathic Offerings March 28, 2013 […]


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