Allergy Blog

Is your echinacea really echinacea?  Adulteration of Your Herbal Supplements

A November 2013 journal article in BioMedCentral Medicine and highlighted in the New York Times throws doubt on the quality of your herbal supplements.  This is of special concern to me as an allergist, since there are many fillers which were included in these supplements which were unidentified allergens, including wheat, soy and nut. 


A research group headed by Steven Newmaster used a technique called DNA barcoding to conduct a blinded test of the authenticity for 44 herbal products representing 12 companies.


Less than half (48%) of the products contained some of the claimed ingredients.  One-third of these also contained contaminants and or fillers not listed on the label.  Product substitution occurred in 30/44 of the products tested.  Only 2 of 12 companies had products free of substitution, contamination or fillers. Some of the contaminants posed serious health risks to consumers due to potential organ toxicity, side effects or food or skin allergy issues.  The conclusions of the study were that the products tested were of poor quality, included considerable product substitution, contamination and use of fillers which posed health hazards, such as senna, which is a strong laxative.


However, I noted that no mention was made of the manufacturing standards of the samples tested.  For instance, since the samples were obtained "off the shelf" -- drugstore, internet or supermarket -- it is unlikely that any of the samples tested were of pharmaceutical grade quality.  Pharmaceutical grade quality are what it sounds like -- supplements made to the exacting quality standards of the FDA.  This means it is more likely that lesser-quality supplements were tested, resulting in a greater likelihood that the supplements would be adulterated since, unfortunately, quality control is less stringent. 


For your safety and good health, your supplements -- vitamins, herbals, probiotics -- should be made in an FDA-inspected facility, meet or exceed cGMP quality standards and are pharmaceutical grade.  This will help guarantee that what you think your supplement has in it is actually there, and nothing else.  Look for companies which manufacture using certified Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP) -- this ensures they adhere to strict federal quality control criteria.  Look for these on supplement labels.  If you have food allergy concerns, look also for the federally required statement regarding the allergens the supplement may or may not contain. 


And by the way, those of you allergic to ragweed shouldn't be taking echinacea anyway, since it cross-reacts with the pollen ... 


To your health!


Eva Berkes, MD


2068 Hawthorne St. : Sarasota, Florida 34239     t: 941.953.5050 e: