Warning: Your ‘herbal’ medicines may not contain herbs

An investigation carried out by University College London and the BBC has found that herbal food supplements are often misleadingly labeled. The researchers tested a sample of 30 ginkgo products bought on the high street and online, and found that eight of the products contained none of the ‘active’ ingredient.

They found that one milk thistle product, which is sold as a treatment for serious conditions such as cirrhosis, jaundice and hepatitis, contained no milk thistle. Every single product that turned out to contain no herbal ingredient (or substances that couldn’t be identified) had been purchased from online retailers.

The team from University College London studied the herbal medicines’ composition using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and thin layer chromatography. Quality control is, however, notoriously difficult to monitor in herbal remedies, because they are usually classed as food supplements (which aren’t as strictly regulated as pharmacological products).

The study’s head researcher, Professor Michael Heinrich, blamed the poor results on greed and ignorance on the part of the manufacturers.

‘I think some of the suppliers of food supplements are lying. In other cases I think they don’t know what they’re doing. Many of the botanical drugs come from rare or increasingly rare species, so it makes perfect sense to get something cheaper, which helps to you get a better price at a lower cost.’

As we reported last month, the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is taking ‘fake medicine’ seriously. Hundreds of websites based in Britain were closed during their latest raids. But as long as homeopaths and herbalists are in business, consumers will continue to buy ineffective treatments; UK regulations require ‘a 1 in 10,000 dilution of the starting material’ in homeopathic medicines.