Herb Quality is Everything – Part 1

(And there is a whole lot to it.)

IF herbs are truly God’s pharmaceuticals, and IF they become diluted or contaminated, we have lost our best option to rebalance and retain health.


Factoids of note…

  • Nutrition Journal reported that 90% of all St. John’s Wort on the market was either spiked w/synthetic hypericin, adulterated with other substances related to St.John’sWort or didn’t contain either what the label claimed OR any St.John’sWort at all. – That’s 90% of the St. John’s Wort on the market. Perhaps you’ve tried some and came to the conclusion that it didn’t work. No wonder.
  • NSP tested a sample of St. John’s Wort sold by a national retailer and found that it was the wrong species of plant.
  • A study of 54 ginseng preparations revealed that 60% contained so little ginseng that they were worthless; 25% contained no ginseng at all. Another study of the herb Feverfew found that 2 out of 3 contained no active ingredient. Maybe you’ve tried these and concluded herbs don’t work.
  • Alternative Medicine Digest (Nov ‘99) reports high levels of toxic substances in many Chinese herbal preparations on the market. Arsenic, lead, mercury, belladonna, and strychnine were some of the contaminants that were found as well as pharmaceuticals.
  • A Colorado Springs supplement manufacturer was investigated for spiking its herbal products with pharmaceuticals. The company and its CEO pleaded guilty to conspiracy to evade and avoid the FDA investigation.

Why do these things happen?

More than 85% of the herbs on the market are made by small, contract manufacturers. They sell them to big box stores, warehouse clubs and other companies – that do NOT test their own products. Most companies have higher advertising budgets than quality assurance budgets and thus have not made the investment in the instrumentation and personnel to patrol the quality of herbs with their label on it.

Even well known and respected medical authorities farm out their product formulas to be made by third party encapsulators with minimal check on the end product with their name on it.

Cheap herbs not only do not work, but also can actually be harmful if spiked with toxic substances (like pharmaceuticals).  If you want to get well, you have got to have the real deal, potent and unadulterated plant material.

I’ve wasted a lot of money on cheap herbs, and I found that to get consistently good results, I need to insist on good quality.  You probably haven’t thought about ‘what could go wrong?’ with these low quality herbs.


Here are some tests that should be done.

1. Bacteria & fungi (micro-contamination). Many herbs arrive at the encapsulator already ground, thus mold or bacteria are not easily detected. So the herbs are put in a growing medium to see if unacceptable levels of mold or bacteria are present in the sample. Root herbs often contain E. Coli, as does Black Walnut hulls often harvested from the ground.

2. Check for the proper plant part by looking at the cell structure: Do you have red clover leaves or blossoms? Do you have St. John’s Wort leaves, roots or flowers? In both these cases it is the blossom that contains the important actives and if the other parts of the plant are included, you have a less effective product.

3. Chemistry: Does the ephedra have the proper balance of all 5 alkaloids? Is this a batch of Indian Valerian (which doesn’t have the active ingredient) or European Valerian, which is 4 times more expensive but contains the important actives?

Some companies extract the essential oils from the herbs then try to resell the herbs on the market. You don’t want these.

4. Ash testing tells how much dirt is contained in the sample. Sometimes dirt is added because herbs are sold by weight. Someone brought me an Echinacea product which I opened and tasted. It tasted like dirt and did not have the unmistakable mouth feel that unadulterated Echinacea has. Don’t blame the herb if it doesn’t work. Check the quality.

5. Radiation: Russia was one of the world’s major chickweed suppliers. At the time of the Chernobyl accident, NSP is one of the few companies that would not market Chickweed because of the high levels of radiation contamination. Yet other companies had the radioactive chickweed on the shelves. Did they know? Did they check?

6. Heavy metal contamination – lead, arsenic…these can make you sick – not well. The FDA seized GNC’s calcium supplement because of the high levels of lead. Why weren’t they checking for this? This is very disconcerting to those who take supplements. (By the way, in 35 years NSP has had zero recalls because they check their raw materials before and after processing)

7. Toxic substances (DDT, Ethylene dioxide, fungicides, fertilizers) – Each of these has a chemical fingerprint that the proper instrumentation can detect. Korean Ginseng is often contaminated with pesticides that are banned in this country. El Nino was responsible for the high levels of arsenic found in Kelp. Does the company or food coop from which you get your Kelp test for these things?

8. Disintegration & dissolution studies – Does the supplement fall apart in a timely manner in the stomach environment?

So, is it time for the FDA to step in and make companies do these tests?

NO!! Government regulation always makes matters worse. Herbs need to remain food supplements that are openly available without a prescription or government regulation to the informed public. The concern many have is that the FDA has a tainted history and is likely to begin banning useful, therapeutic herbs like they have done with chaparral and comfrey and lobelia, which all have hundreds of years of safe use. (Unlike Vioxx, Celebrex, Baycol, etc.)

Pharmaceutical Companies want the FDA to hold herb companies to the same standards. But herbs are much safer and could never kill as many people as pharmaceuticals do. Rather…

We the consumers must insist that the bottle of herbs that we have in our hand came from a batch in which all the above tests were done. We the consumer must insist on quality.

Educate yourself further with some shocking stories on herb quality.




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