Herbal Supplements

Hello and Happy New Year! I took a short hiatus from writing posts towards the end of last year due to my schedule, but I’m back for 2020. I’ll be posting monthly in an effort to provide thoughtful and thoroughly researched information. If you have requests, send em my way!

Now, onto today’s topic. You might remember a post I wrote last year on Dietary Supplements. Well, I wanted to delve in a little bit more to some helpful resources and cover some specific herbal supplements.

Now, there is a huge debate over the benefit you receive from taking dietary or herbal supplements, and it’s one I don’t want to get too far into the weeds with. Basically, there are long-standing benefits attributed to many of them, but some argue that it’s a placebo effect. There isn’t a ton of research on it either way, and the results vary widely depending on what exactly is being studied. Whatever your position on the matter, the use of supplements is associated with a healthy lifestyle, and they are used by a majority of Americans.

Because dietary and herbal supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA like food is, they do require more research to ensure you are buying wisely. Otherwise, you may end up with supplements that don’t contain what is on the label or contain ingredients that aren’t bioavailable.

One of the best ways to do so is to look for certifications or third-party testing. You will probably see me write about that more than once, because I’m a huge fan of it. In a nutshell, third-party certification is exactly what it sounds like. An independent organization ensures that a product meets specified requirements. Because the verification is independent, it is free from market and company pressure, reducing the likelihood of error or fraud. The downside of this is that your products will be more expensive. Certification has fees associated with it, because the testing and verification cost something to carry out.

Now, when I am writing about certifications, I don’t mean when you look at a bottle and it randomly says something like “Approved” or “Guaranteed” on it. Certification is meaningless unless the organizing body has useful standards in place.

There are a few legitimate organizations that cover dietary and herbal supplements. Consumer Lab is one such organization that offers reviews by supplement type, however it does require a paid membership to access full reports. NSF is another organization that certifies supplements. You can search their website for products or look for their mark on the bottles themselves. A third organization, United States Pharmacopeia (USP) also verifies products that are listed on their website. They have a seal which you can find on products themselves. Both the NSF and USP seals can be seen below. This interview has some helpful information on understanding supplement quality if you’d like some further reading.

Seal for NSF certification for supplements

United States Pharmacopeia (USP) seal for certification of supplements

Even with these organizations and certifications in place, finding quality products still isn’t an easy task. I decided to delve into a few specific herbs here to try and find some certified or legitimate sources of supplements.

Wormwood (Artemesia absinthium)
Wormwood is an herb that has traditionally been used to improve digestion and treat liver and gallbladder problems. It has anti-fungal and antibacterial properties, and there is preliminary evidence that is beneficial for those with Crohn’s disease.

It is readily available in stores and online, and like most supplements, some brands are more legitimate than others. Oregon’s Wild Harvest sells a pure supplement and performs identity verification on their incoming herbs. They have also been awarded for industry leadership by the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), a national trade group.

Health Force Super Foods sells an herbal supplement mix containing wormwood. They require third-party, independent lab testing for botanical identity, among other things. I requested some specifics from them, and they quickly replied with a plethora of technical information. Their facility is registered with NSF for Good Manufacturing Practices, and they utilize HTPLC accompanied by COAs for botanical identification.

Irish moss (Chondrus crisps)
Irish moss or red algae is a seaweed used to help coughs, tuberculosis, intestinal problems, ulcers, and other ailments. It can function as a prebiotic, influencing the gut microbiome and is rich in phytochemicals that are beneficial to human health.

Swanson sells it as a supplement in capsules and powder. They participate in reviews by Consumer Lab and are tested by third-party labs. Penn Herb Company is another supplier that sells Irish moss as a standalone supplement or blended with other ingredients. They have a strong reputation, though I couldn’t find any information about their sourcing or testing practices.

Guaco (Mikania cordifolia, glomerata, guaco, laevigata)
Guaco is a vine native to South America that has been used for a variety of ailments, including snakebites, fever, bronchitis, cough, and sore throat. It has known antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.

This supplement is a lot harder to find, though not impossible. Washington Homeopathic Products sells it in liquid and pill form. They have a good reputation and are a member of the American Association of Homeopathic Pharmacists (AAHP), another trade group.

Where does that leave me? You might notice that the first half of this article covers third-party testing, but most of the herbal supplements I actually found don’t utilize it. While I am a proponent of independent testing, please remember that it’s a single tool among many that can be used to determine a product’s authenticity and reliability. Its use is not as widespread among herbal supplements as it for more mainstream vitamins. There is still a lot of value at looking at a brand’s reputation, their in-house practices, and association with industry and trade groups.

For an example of a product that isn’t so great, we can take a look at this one. It’s sold by a major retailer, but there is almost no information on their sourcing practices, testing, or quality standards. The bottle includes multiple label-claims (pictured below) that apply to almost all supplements. FDA registration and following GMPs are required by law of any facility in the U.S, whether it is on the bottle or not. It’s a good example of making label-claims to appear more legitimate, without actually having any practices to differentiate the brand from competitors. I reached out to the company to try and find more information and got no response. Buyer beware! A good rule of thumb to follow is that the more information a company can give you, the better.

generic supplement making vague label claims

There’s a lot to take in from this post, and I hope you found it helpful. More to come next time!

Image by: Nilce Bravo

Leave a Comment