I am wary of various herbal products and supplements that are extracts of foods or edible plants, such as ephedra, melatonin, grape seed extract, St John's wort and so forth. Most foods contain beneficial phytochemicals, and many prescription drugs come from plants. But the major problem with herbals and over-the-counter extracts from plants started in 1994 when a law was passed in the US Congress prohibiting the Food and Drug Administration from regulating products that are made from food. Now there is no regulatory agency to protect consumers from unscrupulous entrepreneurs, and no way to tell good products from useless or even harmful ones.
Ephedra may help people lose weight, St John's wort may be as effective in controlling depression as many prescription drugs, and melatonin may help you to fall asleep at night. However, who makes sure that an herbal product has inside the package what it claims on the label?
A report from the University of Arkansas in the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacists showed that half of the supplements tested for ephedra had a huge discrepancy between what the label claimed and what was actually measured in the product. One product contained no ephedra whatever, while another contained 154 percent of what the label stated. This is particularly disturbing because ephedra is an extract from the Chinese plant called ma huang, which contains ephedrine, a potent stimulant that raises blood pressure and makes the heart beat faster. Ephedra helps people to lose weight by suppressing appetite, but in high doses can raise blood pressure and cause strokes. There is no protectection from manufacturers who sell ma huang containing too much ephedrine that could kill you, or too little ephedrine to give you no benefit at all.
The Los Angeles Times reported that 30 percent of supplements labeled St. John's wort for depression did not have the correct dose on the label, and a report from MIT showed that most bottles labeled melatonin had little or no melatonin activity. The health food industry has lobbied congress hard to prevent any regulation, so it is an unregulated industry and you have no way to tell whether you are buying an honest product or you are being taken in by a fraud. I think that it would be good for the health food and herbal industry to have some government oversight so you could have confidence in the industry and know that you are dealing with honest, sincere supplement manufacturers and that the unscrupulous ones are no longer in business.
American Journal of Health-System Pharmacists. May, 2000
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