The People's Perspective on Medicine

Show 985: Herbal Supplements Put to the Test

What should you consider when you are buying herbs to improve your health?
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Herbal Supplements Put to the Test

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A recent investigation by the New York Attorney General’s office provoked scandalized headlines. They indicated that important herbal supplements from four major retailers did not actually contain the herbs they purported to provide. What was detected by the DNA barcode test was rice, soy or wheat, possibly used as fillers.

But was the DNA barcode test appropriate for the extracts that were tested? We consult two experts on supplement quality control, Dr. Tod Cooperman of and Dr. Russell Setright, consultant to Blackmore’s, Australia, for their herbal products. Learn how herbs are regulated differently in Australia as well as many European countries.

We’ll also explore some recent research on herbal and food therapies. Call in your questions and comments at 888-472-3366 or email between 7 and 8 am EDT.

This Week’s Guests:

Tod Cooperman, MD, is founder and president of, an organization that tests the quality of supplements on the American market. The photo is of Dr. Cooperman.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health offers useful information.

Russell Setright, ND, ATMS, is a medical herbalist, acupuncturist and educator in Advanced Life Support, First Aid, Emergency Care and Rescue. He has taught naturopathy at the Academy of Natural Therapies on the Gold Coast of Queensland, Australia, and consulted with Blackmores Ltd., an Australian producer of herbal supplements. His books include The Handbook of Preventive Medicine with T.M. Florence, MD, and Get Well, An A-Z of Natural Medicine for Everyday Illness. His website is

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    About the Author
    Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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    Waiting on Chris to answer the above question !

    Hi Joe and Terry,
    I was going to join ConsumerLab so that I could have access to their database as a way of choosing safer products…..however, I read this VERY interesting review about ConsumerLab.
    Now I’m not at all convinced they are a trusted organization.
    Any thoughts/comments on this?
    Thank you for all that you two do. does not claim to be a nonprofit company. They make money two ways:
    1) they charge consumers for detailed reports.
    2) they charge companies to test their products; if the products pass, they get a “seal of approval.”

    While it would be great to have a nonprofit like Consumer Reports doing this, the fact that has this business model doesn’t invalidate their analyses, in our opinion.

    Clarification as to exactly what is considered a “vitamin store” is required; also since many identical brands of supplements are sold at both “vitamin stores” & large retailers, without knowing the specifics, such advice is virtually useless. Especially since he fails to mention his source(s) & supplements.

    I read a review by an anti-vitamin physician (Cohen?) that said the type of test the NY AG gave was not a valid test for these products making the results meaningless.

    At that time it was also said that the AG was refusing to release the actual test results. Why not?

    The experts we consulted say DNA barcoding is great for identifying plant material, but not necessarily appropriate for extracts. That’s because in extracts the DNA may be broken down.

    We cannot speculate on the AG’s motives for releasing or not releasing results.

    Joe and Terry — In your post back in February, The Straight and Skinny on the Dietary Supplement Scandal, about the New York report on herbals, you concluded with:

    Our Bottom Line: Perhaps it is time for the FDA to take a more active role in monitoring the quality of dietary supplements, from vitamins and minerals to spices and herbs.

    Joe expressed similar sentiments at least three times during this show, Herbal Supplements Put to the Test.

    I have to conclude that Joe is not aware of the phenomenon known to economists and political scientists as “regulatory capture”. It refers to the fact that when regulation is assigned to a political entity, that agency fairly promptly comes under the control of the people whose activities it is supposed to regulate. The phenomenon is quite reliable and has been understood for several decades. It follows from the fact that the entities to be regulated have a single-minded and continuing interest in controlling the regulator’s activities, whereas the general public has only a diffuse counter interest, one concern among many.

    The proper conclusion is to keep regulation open to many participants, too many to be taken over. When the need is great, regulators will show up. In the case of supplements/etc, we presently have participants ranging from the likes of, whom you have featured on the show, to commentators like yourselves, to Cleveland Clinic. There are numerous others. At the same time, there are already laws on the books about deception, fraud, etc, that authorities can use when bad activity has been exposed.

    Consider the strong analogy with journalism in general. Would you really want a governmental Ministry of Truth to have a monopoly on investigating and reporting wrongdoing? Hasn’t the rampant failure of the FDA, a matter on which you frequently have occasion to comment, demonstrated sufficiently that that is not the effective, or even safe, way to go? If not, see also, for example, the Department of Agriculture as a determiner of what’s “organic”, and indeed of what it is advisable to eat in general!

    I hope you will go back and reconsider your Bottom Line. When you speak, many people listen. That’s a big responsibility.

    So, what is a good source that is also affordable?

    Is the information from Consumer based on their own investigation or just another website managed by the pharmaceutical companies? Where do they get their information from?

    Hi Carol – Yes, the information from is based on its own investigations. Since 1999 we have tested thousands of dietary supplements. We publish a new report every 3 to 4 weeks. These reports — our Product Reviews — typically include 10 to 20 products which we have selected for testing and we show the results — pass or fail. The Product Reviews are grouped by type of product, such as Ginkgo, Fish Oils, Multivitamins, CoQ10, etc. The reports also include extensive information about how to use these products safely and effectively — and we update the clinical information daily based on the latest studies. The tests are funded by subscriptions paid by over 70,000 individual members ($36/year) and institutional subscribers (primarily public and college libraries). We survey our readers every year to find out which products and brands to test. We also have a voluntary Quality Certification Program in which any company can have its product evaluated for potential quality certification the same way we evaluate the products we choose for our Product Reviews – we buy them at retail and put them through rigorous testing at various expert laboratories to determine the amount(s) of key ingredient(s), levels of common contaminants such as lead, freshness (if an oil), and proper pill disintegration. I hope that helps answer your question. You can learn more about us at

    At 55y/o , I was on a long list of meds. I fell back on my paternal g’mother’s (native American) wisdom.
    I’m now 72 and on NO ! meds.
    thanks to great nutrition. juicing !

    I have taken Lecithin for years. Now I can’t find any! Hopefully there is something that will help my cholesterol.

    So where is the link to listen on the day of the podcast? I sure don’t see it on the email.

    Charles, we usually post the podcast the day after the broadcast. We promise to have it up by Monday, as weekends are sometimes full of other activities.

    I routinely tell my friends not to buy supplements from “vitamin stores,” and huge retailers. They never listen to me, hahaha. I’ve been taking supplements since I was 16, and I’m 53 now and enjoy perfect health, so I like to think I put my money where my mouth is.

    Chris….so where do you get your vitamins then?

    where do you buy your vitamins and supplements then?

    * Be nice, and don't over share. View comment policy^