Major retailers accused of selling phony herbal supplements

Yes, I’m sure that the fact that people used willow tea for headaches influenced the discovery of its active component. But that was before there were any systematic drug discovery methods. The whole reason why modern medicine is so much more effective than the techniques of the 19th century or earlier is that it is based on understanding why something works.

Putting aside the utter nonsense of vitalism, I vaguely understood that there’s some kind of case to be made for the notion that the active ingredient has some kind of synergistic effects with other compounds present in the herbs, that these effects are lost when the active ingredient is isolated, and that the pharmaceutical companies might not be able to examine all such synergistic effects.


[quote=“Eark_the_Bunny, post:11, topic:51254”]
Not only are these ‘herbals’ worthless
[/quote]Some are, some aren’t:

(see evidence section for each)

This looks like a GREAT natural experiment. All of those “gluten-free” supplements containing wheat, for instance – did anyone complain about their symptoms after using them?

Actually, if I had to bet I’d actually count on 25-30% of the defrauded customers swearing by the efficacy of the bogus products.


Suspect? I would hope.

On the other hand, some really work (and with research to back them up.) Valerian root extract, for instance, really is an anxiolytic that is safe for use with cats. My partner found out about it from actual veterinary research (in Iran, of all places) and it’s proven incredibly useful in working with rescued cats. And, yes, it really is a night-or-day kind of difference.

As always, do your homework.


The whole reason why modern medicine is so much more effective than the techniques of the 19th century or earlier is that it is based on understanding why something works.

Methotrexate is a pretty amazing drug. It was one of the first drugs developed on purpose - e.g. researchers had in mind how it would work when they formulated it. That it’s an improved version of folic acid, which was a natural vitamin-supplement-based cancer cure is also interesting. It’s great for cancer. But it’s also used for arthritis because it works very well. But people still don’t understand why it works this way.

There was no systemic research for its use as an arthritis drug. Same goes for minoxidil. I’m a scientist in the drug development industry, and, as far as I can see, there is a lot more guided searching rather than pure engineering.


My late father spent a lot of money on herbal treatments for his macular degeneration (and, um, another old man problem). Vitamin and supplement catalogs shamelessly shill this crap; lots of “two for one” offers and loyalty clubs.

As a result, my parent’s basement has a shelf packed with neat rows of supplement bottles. My mom could probably distribute the vitamins between us kids so we have a five year supply, but what of the weird supplements? Even if some trial showed they were effective, there is no way to know if a particular brand or batch actually contained the “active” ingredient.

Shameless, greed-driven shilling, perpetuated by gullible dupes who can be counted on to squawk when any sort of certification or regulation is proposed.


“Phony herbal supplements”. Isn’t that a tautology ?


True, and yes ultimately that is the place where we want to end up, with standardized reliable doses of the relevant active substances. But there are limits of time and funding. Drug discovery is expensive, so if an herb were cheap and effective and a pharmaceutical company couldn’t show that a purified version worked better they wouldn’t be able to recoup their research costs. Drug isolation, synthesis, and trials also take a long time, so if could benefit now from an herb which is known to be efficacious (most aren’t, but some are) I don’t want to wait the 5-15 years it would take to bring a purified version to market.

Also, if an herb contains a family of relevant compounds that act synergistically,the above problems are compounded.

And as others have pointed it out, if there is a large market for a particular herb, and evidence it really works, that is a strong signal to pharmaceutical companies about which drugs they may want to develop.


Sure, but why do you imply that people making such preparations themselves in the 21st century rely upon 19th century technique? When somebody has researched why something works, a person can make use of that research on their own. Such as isolating compounds from cheaply bought herbs, or having a pound synthesized at a lab privately.

If the naturally occurring form of a plant is mildly effective, wouldn’t an extract be an obvious thing to try? It puzzles me how people here seem to be arguing against the efficacy of these things based upon the sale of fraudulent goods. By the same logic, gasoline would become useless if somebody duped people by filling pumps with water instead.

Of course it can be!

The question is if the added cost of the extract is worth the difference against the original herb. The possibility of fraud or poorly made product is another factor. Both may or may not be a problem but it is worth to be vigilant.

Even a dry-leaves herb can be faked. But the analysis can be often done via a standard, inexpensive optical microscope, and in case of common herbs it is somewhat unlikely (though certainly can happen too, these days you cannot really trust anything).

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As long as they’ve banished all of the active ingredient by the homeopathically correct method of repeated dilution and ‘succussion’(and according to the number and value of dilutions specified on the label, eg. 5C or 8D), then there’s a strong case to be made that the product is, in fact, an authentic and honestly labelled homeopathic preparation.

Doesn’t mean that homeopathy isn’t bullshit; but it isn’t a fraud at the labeling level.

Now, if some huckster were to just be slapping distilled water into bottles and claiming that it had been produced by serial dilution and succussion of the stated homeopathic agent, well, that would be fraud, albeit chemically indistinguishable fraud.

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And effing reeks as it rots on the ground.


There’s the post I was looking for.


No, it isn’t.

I think this issue with the drugstore brands is exactly what Melalucca, Shaklee, Arbonne, and all the other pyramid scheme MLM brands use to sell their products.

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Being addicted to recreational Metamucil use is no picnic.

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Oops! Somebody from the supplement lobby must have missed a payoff.

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We’re discussing several distinct issues here. One is the efficacy of plant-based medicines. It’s clear that compounds present in plants have powerful effects on humans – as poisons, as drugs, as medicine. There is no reason to prefer a compound because it is manufactured in reactor vessels rather than in plant cells. Until very recently, nearly all medicines were plant-based. One of the current arguments used in favor of plant-based medicine is that a person receives a spectrum of compounds from the plant, rather than a single magic bullet, and the synergistic effect of these compounds working together (thanks, Jorpho!) is what produces the benefit. A database of compounds found in medicinal plants is here:
It would be interesting to see what we would discover if a small fraction of the funds spent by drug companies for research were to be applied to medicinal plants.
Given that phytochemicals are potent, another issue is standardization of dose. Plants have wide variations in the concentration of chemicals; for instance, the above database states the allicin content of garlic ranges from 1,500 ppm to 27,800 ppm. Standardization can be achieved by modern quality-controlled processes, and results in bottles of pills rather than bags of herbs. Unfortunately, these additional processing steps also leave room for chicanery, with the addition of adulterants and outright mislabeling of the product. Big biz will be big biz, after all. So it’s a good thing that someone is checking quality control.
There are problems, though, with the methods used by the New York AG. DNA testing has limits: extracts often do not contain undamaged DNA, for one. I personally wouldn’t be surprised if Walmart were faking herbs, but it would be a good idea to verify the DNA results (conducted by only one lab, by a non-botanist) with further testing, before taking such a broad action.
Here’s the response from the American Botanical Council, one of several organizations which support quality control:
In short, corruption in the industry is a distinct and separate issue from the efficacy of plant-based medicines.

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Exactly. When you go to the doctor with a skin infection, the doctor doesn’t prescribe you to rub dirt in it. Even though nearly all the antibiotics used today were discovered by culturing soil bacteria and fungi and seeing what they are able to kill when challenged.

Same goes for herbal supplements. They have practically no legal standards for purity, batch consistency and content. As long as they’re not outright poisonous, you can sell them with a heavy marketing angle toward medical indications as long as you state somewhere on the bottle in 3-point font that the FDA doesn’t know anything about these products, and that they’re not for diagnosing or treating anything specifically. Which means a lot of time they’re advertized as panaceas with a wink and a nudge when in fact there’s no basis in the literature to make any positive claims about them one way or the other.