A study released in Great Britain on Monday has cast some doubts on the accuracy of safety information on herbal supplements. Researchers at the University of Leeds conducted a buying experiment of 68 different packages of herbal products, and found that many of the items stocked on store shelves, including St. John's Wort and Ginkgo, were not labeled with the correct side-effect and safe-use information.
This news may be particularly troubling for consumers and legislators both since a law enacted in the European Union in April was supposed to regulate the labels on herbal supplements to protect buyers. Instead, experts have said that the new law may contain loopholes that allows some herbal supplements and their labels to sneak through unregulated.
Here are some of the key facts to know about herbal supplements and the laws regarding safety information.
* The University of Leeds study was published in BioMed Central's journal, known as BMC Medicine. Researchers found that some 75 percent of the products included in the study did not contain the safety information mandated by the new law.
* The law regarding the safety information on herbal supplements went into effect in the EU in April, and it mandates that herbal supplements must now be registered, after passing various standards aimed at raising the bar for the safety, quality, and manufacture of herbal medications.
* The loophole allows old stock to sit on the shelves without requiring that companies update their included safety information. New stock must conform to the new regulations.
* The law was enacted after a survey showed that some 58 percent of adults in the EU that had taken herbal supplements in the previous two years, did so believing that they were completely safe.
* Different herbal supplements are known to have various side effects and also to potentially interact negatively with many prescription medications, including blood thinners and birth control pills.
* In the United States, medical institutions, like the Mayo Clinic, have warned about the potential harmful side-effects of herbal supplements, while at the same time acknowledging that herbal remedies date back for thousands of years.
* The United States allows companies that manufacture herbal supplements to put their products on the shelf without oversight from the Food and Drug Administration.
* The FDA does not test herbal supplements for safety, nor does it require comprehensive safety information on the labeling of such products, although it does strongly recommend that a person speaks to their doctor or health professional before using any supplement.
* The FDA does not regulate herbal supplements because of the fact that herbal supplements fall under the banner of dietary supplements, not drugs. This is largely due to the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994.
* DSHEA made it so that in order to remove an herbal product from store shelves, the FDA has to prove that an herbal supplement is unsafe, as opposed to the manufacturer having to prove that it is safe for consumption. Prescription medications are regulated in the opposite manner, with the burden of proof on the manufacturer, not the FDA.
Vanessa Evans is a musician and former freelance writer based in Michigan, with a lifelong interest in health and nutrition issues.