Herbal Supplements Are Often Just Made of Rice and Empty Promises

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Would that all the maladies of man could be solved with the bounty of the Earth.

Every time that our planet completes an orbit of the sun, trusting Americans spend $5 billion on “unproven” herbal supplements. The sun, in turn, gives life to plants, which are ground with stone pestles into powerful dust. This plant dust promises to boost the body’s immunity, shield the soul from sadness, halt hot flashes, and aid memory. And surely it must work, for the faithful people return to these capsules each year.

But when these delicate aids were subjected to a thorough evaluation, the New York Times reports, these miraculous pills were found to be nothing more than powdered rice and random weeds.

Researchers using DNA barcoding found that of the 44 supplements tested (from twelve companies), one third of the bottles had no trace of the plant advertised. DNA barcoding is a genetic identification that has been used to find fraud labels in the seafood industry. This is one of the most credible evidences of mislabeling in the supplement industry, following a variety of studies claiming the same thing. (The F.D.A. does require companies to test their products to ensure that they’re safe, but unlike prescription drugs, these supplements are considered fine until proven otherwise.)

Most of the supplements had been diluted with cheap fillers and common plants like soybean, wheat, and rice. In a bottle of echinacea, a fantastic thing that promises to fight colds, there was a “bitter weed” called Parthenium hysterophorus. Oh, does that plant also stop sniffles? No, actually, it has been shown to cause rashes, flatulence, and nausea. Enjoy some major indigestion with your cold. Then, in a vessel promising St. John’s wort, which washes away sadness, there was rice and an Egyptian yellow shrub (Alexandrian senna), which is actually a powerful laxative. Again, enjoy that with your tears.

Despite rigorous testing, the placebo effect — that powerful and rare earthly substance — was still going strong.