The Herbal Consumer

Commentary: Consumer Trust and the Herbal Marketplace


CommentaryLooking at consumer trust in the herbal marketplace provides a multi-faceted view. How consumers experience the health care marketplace and media can feed into the feelings they have about herbal products. Looking at the interplay of these parts can provide a better understanding of what drives consumer behavior. On an individual level, having the self-awareness of what is driving our personal choices can make us better decision-makers and become empowered consumers who understand how we can influence the marketplace.

Trust and Modern Medicine

With our current system, we rely on our doctors and hospitals to treat us, mend our broken bodies, help prevent diseases, etc. Because of this care, we are living longer and when this system works, it’s wonderful. There are times, however, that our bodies can’t be mended regardless of the treatments used, doctors can’t tell us what is wrong with us and why we are suffering, and sometimes we are harmed further by the care given.

Access to care is difficult in terms of finding a knowledgeable personable doctor or surgeon who will listen and take time to explain things, who is covered by our insurance and who is also taking new patients. That’s a lot of hurdles to clear. Insurance companies influence the decisions on the type of care or treatment a consumer can receive rather than leaving it up to the doctor. Consumers have little control over choosing what health insurance they have (dictated by employers and cost) and they often have to fight for the coverage they have when companies deny claims. We have seen our care reduced to a 15 minute visit with our doctor (if we’re lucky to see the doctor) and answers to our health issues are very often given in the form of pills. We have experiences and heard stories of failures of this system from family, friends, neighbors, and/or colleagues.

This all contributes to feelings of mistrust and fear on the part of consumers. We don’t feel powerful in our current health care system – we lack a feeling of control. Navigating the health care system is complex and confusing, and there are serious negative consequences if we don’t navigate it well (i.e. we stay sick, we become sicker, and/or we die; we face financial ruin). It is not a system that is consumer friendly. With all these factors, it isn’t surprising that some consumers look for other options and answers.

Trust and Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine has been around for centuries and is still actively used around the world. Whether it’s grandma’s hot toddy recipe for a cold, witch hazel for cuts and bruises, or ginger for a queasy stomach, it has a certain amount of familiarity for us. Herbs are plants. We’re used to plants. We eat them – or at least we’re supposed to – lots of them every day. The average person doesn’t view them as complex or threatening. We also have positive cultural messages about nature – nature is beautiful, awe-inspiring, valuable and must be protected. Put those messages along with ones that say plants are medicine and can heal you and make you healthy, and that’s an appealing message.

Herbal medicine can give us the feeling of getting some of our power back from our health care experiences. In terms of herbal supplements, we can make the decisions on what we put into our bodies and why. They’re also readily available; we don’t need a prescription. Depending on where we live, we can grow herbs in in our yards. If we want, we have access to books and online courses about herbs and herbal medicine that present the information in understandable ways. It taps into that good ol’ American self-reliance.

Another thing herbal medicine can give is hope. For some of us, modern medicine either has no answers we’re comfortable with or no answers left to give us. We’ve hit the wall, but we’re not ready to give up. There are many stories of people who have or feel they have been helped by herbs. The latest one I’ve read is about a man with Crohn’s disease.

So, if something is familiar to us, makes us feel positive and empowered, and provides hope, we are more likely to trust it. But we can’t discount that sometimes fear and denial drive our decision to trust herbal medicine. Sometimes we’re afraid of the modern medicine treatment even though it has a good chance of working. Sometimes we can’t accept the reality of our health care situation. We choose herbs out of fear.

This feeling can make us vulnerable as consumers. One trap we fall into is trying to self- diagnose rather than go to the doctor. Our bodies are complicated machines and we can get in over our heads quickly when trying to sort it out on our own. It can be difficult to tell the established science, from the pseudo-science, from the emerging research science from the information that is just flat out wrong. It can be easy to jump to wrong conclusions about symptoms and what the source of our health problem is. Fear can also lead us to misplace our trust. It’s easy to believe someone when they are telling us what we want to hear.

Consumer are also vulnerable when they don’t understand how herbal supplements are regulated. We see them for sale among over-the-counter medications and we assume they are regulated the same way. Based on that assumption, we trust that they’re effective and safe to use. But they’re not regulated the same way. Unfortunately, there are people out there who are willing to take the chance to violate the regulations that are in place in order to make money.

Consumers misplace their trust with the belief that natural equals safe. The organic movement and the non-GMO movement tend to feed into this idea as well as the fact that we eat some herbs. Garlic, chamomile, cinnamon – they’re herbs and we get them at the grocery store. In truth there’s a range of herbs – herbs we eat, herbs we take medicinally and herbs that can be toxic. On top of that, there are contamination/adulteration issues with supplements, as well as the additive/synergistic/antagonistic potential effects when supplements are mixed with drugs and other herbs. There are many different variables that go into the safe use of herbs.

There’s a lot of information for consumers to know and sort through when it comes to herbs and the herbal marketplace. Having access to reliable and accurate information is important for making good decisions. We need to be mindful of how easily we give our trust and that includes choosing the sources of information we use.

Trust and the Media

Many of us look to reports and articles from media sources for information. With the internet there are now many sources of information rather than just a set number of newspapers and magazines with established reputations. For consumers, it can be hard to keep track of all these sources and which ones provide accurate, unbiased information and which ones don’t. Some of these sources have an agenda or slant with what they present. There is also the “if it bleeds, it leads” approach in news media. This type of reporting focuses more on salacious headlines and information rather than laying out an issue in a way that can help consumers become better informed.

Here is a recent example that I came across. It is an article from the Vox website. The title is, “Scientists are finding that many “all-natural” dietary supplements contain potent drugs,” with the sub headline, “Why a concerned group of academics and public officials are exposing the evils of dietary supplements.”

Within the article is the statement, “Dietary supplements are regulated like foods — not like drugs — under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. Pill-makers can basically put whatever claims they want on their bottles.”

The first sentence is true; supplements are regulated as a special kind of food. The second sentence is not. Dietary supplement manufacturers (that make more than just pills, by the way) cannot use disease claims and must have pre-authorization by the FDA to use health and qualified health claims (see How to Really Read an Herbal Supplement Label Part II for more information). Misinforming consumers, whether intentionally or unintentionally, only creates confusion and can negatively impact the consumer’s ability to make sound decisions.

Another issue in media reporting is the “studies show” reference in articles about herbal supplements. It’s presented as definitive proof of whatever someone is trying to prove. But referencing a study isn’t enough. Savvy herbal consumers will ask questions like:

  • Who did the study and who financed the study?
  • How long ago was it done?
  • How many test subjects were involved? (Smaller studies may not provide statistically relevant results.)
  • How long did the study run? (A short term study may not have allowed enough time for positive and negative outcomes to be observed.)
  • Can I have free access to the study results so I can see how the study was constructed and if it was a randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled clinical study (considered the gold standard of studies)?

It can take a lot of time and effort to track down solid information. It turns into an exhausting game of trying to become informed enough to be able to identify the sources of accurate and reliable information. We need to figure out who we trust for our information and why we trust them rather than treating any article as a factual source because it’s on the internet.

As consumers, we need to remember that we have power in the marketplace. We have something that companies and industries want. They want our money and for us to feel positively about them and their products/services. They want us to trust them. We have to make them work hard to get these from us. The savvier we are about how things work and what is important to us, the more power we have to mold and influence the marketplace.

Next article – What to Know About Essential Oils: The Basics