Are all Brands of herbal medicine the same?

There are many choices when it comes to sourcing your herbs and herbal medicine. Sometimes the same item in one brand is very expensive and another brand is very cheap. To be thrifty and save money, does it make sense to buy herbal medicine and nutritional supplements the same way most people buy electronics, simply searching for the very least expensive item and then making the purchase?

There are only slight differences in quality between SONY, Samsung, LG and Panasonic. When it comes to a 54” TV, maybe buying the very least expensive does make sense. But can one apply that same logic to buying nutritional supplements and herbal medicine? Are they really all the same quality? I don’t think so.

In 2015, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said DNA tests by his investigations found that just 21% of the test results from store brand herbal supplements from GNC, Target, Walmart, and Walgreens verified DNA from the plants listed on the products’ labels — with 79% coming up empty for DNA related to the labeled content or verifying contamination with other plant material.

That’s equivalent to an unbelievable 2 bottles out of 10 have the correct herbal ingredients that are listed on the label actually found inside the bottle. Eight out of 10 are just bogus ingredients, completely void of the herbs that you think you are taking! Or, 79% of the “echinacea” in your bottle is really just filler material! DNA is not the gold standard of testing, however, many questions arise from this study, shedding doubt on the herbal products sold by theses retailers.

If that’s not bad enough, these fraudulent products contained soy, rice, bean, wheat, and nut powders, which were not listed ingredients and are hazardous allergens for many people, making them sick if ingested. Some even used wheat powder to replace the herbal ingredient on the label, but were labeled wheat and gluten-free! Your source for herbal medicine is actually very important. One bottle of echinacea is NOT the same as another!

According to Charlie Cameron from Inhabitat, “Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and an expert on supplement safety, told the Times that it is possible that the manufacturing process had destroyed some of the DNA of the herbs, which could explain the very extreme results of the FDA’s study.”

Not surprisingly, very poor manufacturing processes are used in these low quality herbal supplements. Herbal medicine is natural plant medicine, and if the plant DNA is destroyed in the manufacturing process, do you really have anything of value left? Of course not!

Competition is very strong in this industry. The pressure to produce at very low cost has lead many retailers to simply buy the least expensive ingredients possible, buying from sources that are not reliable. The big box stores and chain retailers are all competing to offer the lowest prices on the market, even at the expense of truth, and certainly at the expense of your health. They simply do not care.

Some of you reading this are thinking that you already know not to buy from these giant corporate retailers, and this is a big step in the right direction. There are several general rules that may help you to navigate the herbal medicine buying maze and make the best choice for you.

  1. Buy Herbal Medicine from an Herb Company and not a vitamin / supplement company. When a company specializes in herbs and herbal medicine, you are more likely to get a high quality product. Many of these companies were started because of their love of herbs and natural plant medicine.
  2. Look for an herbal company that sells primarily organically grown herbal ingredients. Most herbs for herbal medicine are now cultivated rather than picked in the wild. Do you want chemical fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide residue as part of your herbal medicine? Besides the obvious personal health benefits, buying organic supports sound, ecological agricultural practices.
  3. In general, herbs in capsules are cleaner than herbs processed as tablets because tablets often have fillers and binders to make them glue together into a tablet. Pure herbal powder can be easily put into a capsule.
  4. Also of high quality are liquid herbal tinctures. A higher percentage of the active medicinal constituents are made available through the liquid tincture extraction process. Many more organic herbs are available to make liquids than are available as organic herbal powders.
  5. Buy whole herbs rather than the products that have isolated one “active ingredient” of an herb. The whole herb has many synergistic components that make the herb much more effective than just one component of the plant isolated from the whole plant.
  6. If you do take an isolated ingredient, take it along with the whole herb to have the synergistic components available to make the isolated ingredient more useful to the body. As an example, take milk thistle whole herb with silymarin. (Silymarin is an extracted active ingredient of the milk thistle plant proven to be an effective medicine for the liver.)

Buy from small herbal companies to support high quality passionate herbalists whose goal is to spread the word about the healing use of plant medicine, rather than corporate nutriceutical companies who simply want to cash in on the growing popularity of herbal medicine.