On behalf of Ronald H. Kauffman, P.A. posted in Health and Fitness on Wednesday, November 6, 2013.

Herbal supplements and divorce may seem to be off topic, but it isn’t. I often advise clients to regularly exercise, eat well, and maintain a healthy lifestyle while going through this process. Alternative medicine may have a place in a healthy lifestyle, but a new report suggests we should be wary of herbal supplements.

We spend around $5 billion a year on herbal supplements that promise everything from fighting off colds (Echinacea) and increasing memory (Ginko) to male enhancement (Extenze).

But a new study is showing through DNA tests that many pills labeled as herbs are really nothing more than ground up rice and common weeds. As the New York Times reports:

Using a test called DNA barcoding, a kind of genetic fingerprinting that has also been used to help uncover labeling fraud in the commercial seafood industry, Canadian researchers tested 44 bottles of popular supplements sold by 12 companies.

They found that many were not what they claimed to be, and that pills labeled as popular herbs were often diluted – or replaced entirely – by cheap fillers like soybean, wheat and rice.

Among their findings:

  • Bottles of Echinacea (to prevent and treat colds) contained ground up bitter weed and parthenium hysterophorus (an invasive plant linked to flatulence)
  • Bottles of St. John’s wort (to treat mild depression) contained none of the medicinal herb, but a lot of ground up rice
  • Another bottle of St. John’s wort contained only Alexandrian senna, a shrub that acts as a powerful laxative
  • Gingko biloba supplements (to enhance memory) were mixed with fillers and black walnut, a hazard for people with nut allergies
  • Black cohosh (a remedy for hot flashes and other menopause symptoms) actually contained an Asian plant, Actaea asiatica, which can be toxic to humans
  • Of herbal supplements tested, 33% found no trace of the herb advertised on the bottle
  • Many were adulterated with ingredients not listed on the label, like rice, soybean nuts, and wheat

Representatives of the supplement industry do not believe mislabeling has reached the extent suggested by the new research. The testing technique is not foolproof. It can identify the substances in a supplement, but it cannot determine their potency.

However, the state of supplement regulation may be “the Wild West,” and most consumers have no idea how few safeguards are in place.

While staying healthy through the divorce process is highly recommended, buyer of herbal supplements beware!

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