The market for herbs, herbal supplements and herbal medicine has been experiencing a slow re-emergence since the 1960s. In recent years, the interest in these products has begun to grow rapidly. With this growth comes reports of consumers being harmed by adulterated supplements. There are demands for more regulation and for better enforcement of the current regulations coming from representatives of Congress, attorneys general and even the industry itself. The actions by the New York State Attorney General (AG) Eric Schneiderman in 2015 sent strong waves through the herbal and dietary supplement industries. Many companies see transparency as one way to protect their brand and market share with consumers while preparing for enforcement inspections. But what does transparency really mean to consumers? Will it provide useful information or will it turn into just another marketing ploy?
Leading the Way to Transparency
In 2015, there were two actions taken by Schneiderman against the herbal supplement industry. In February 2015 his office tested a number of bottles of select herbal supplements from GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreens retail stores. Declaring that most had no evidence of the herb listed on the bottle, Schneiderman forced retailers to pull the supplements from their shelves. The AG then required each of the manufacturers of the products to provide documentation on how they followed the current good manufacturing practices (cGMP) that are required by regulation. In September 2015, Schneiderman sent cease-and-desist letters to 13 manufacturers of herbal supplements containing devil’s claw. The AG stated that tests showed that the supplements contained Harpagophytum zeyheri along with or instead of Harpagophytum procumbens with H. zeyheri not being listed on the label. Both of these actions caused considerable uproar in the herbal industry along with charges that the AG was using faulty testing methods and criticism for not releasing the data from his tests for review. As a result there has been a lot of conversation within the industry about the best ways to test ingredients and products and a potential for setting standards for the types of tests being used.
Due to how regulation of the dietary supplement industry has evolved over the past 20-30 years and less-than-rigorous enforcement, there has been a lot of room for play in the industry. Small companies have had the chance to grow without always needing to take on the financially restrictive costs of verifying the quality of their products to regulators. Meanwhile unscrupulous companies have been able to dump a steady stream of adulterated products on the market that often have false and misleading claims. Enforcement efforts have increased recently leading the industry’s current focus on transparency.
Is Transparency Worth It to Consumers?
Transparency in the herbal marketplace relates to showing the production process from beginning to end to ensure to the consumer the potency and purity of the product. This starts with where the raw herbs are sourced, the conditions they are grown, and safeguards for contamination and/or adulteration. The next step is how the herbs (or sometimes herbal extracts) are processed, stored and shipped so they can maintain their potency. Then comes how the manufacturer chooses to verify the purity and potency of the herbal ingredient, how they make the product and how well they follow cGMP. Lastly, how the company gets the product to consumers with the potency intact.
Transparency is thought of as a good thing; something people want. Unfortunately, consumers don’t always want to take the time to track down information or to understand the information being presented. When consumers make purchasing decisions, they typically fall into one of four categories for decision-making.
- Consumers who impulse shop (e.g. They have no intention of buying the product when entering a store. The purchase is completely on impulse.)
- Consumers who will do a bare minimum of information gathering before making a decision. (e.g. They’ll walk into a store, see what’s available at that location, pick something or have a routine product they choose and buy it.)
- Consumers who will spend some time gathering information on a type of product they want to buy before making a decision. (e.g. They’ll look at/listen to ads, talk to friends and family, spend some time deliberating and then make a decision to buy.)
- Consumers who will spend a lot of time researching a product before buying. (e.g. They’ll consult Consumer Reports, read online reviews, look at ads, talk to friends and family, go to stores to look at the product if possible, compare features of different brands, compare prices and service/return policies before choosing a store and then make the decision to buy.)
Depending on what category a consumer falls into for purchasing an herbal supplement, the information provided through transparency efforts may not matter at all. When it comes to an herbal supplement, will an average consumer care how the herb was grown? Will an average consumer want to take the time to understand why they might care how the herb was grown? A consumer would need to have a baseline knowledge about how to properly make an herbal product in order to understand details about how a particular product was made.
Another issue is who is providing the transparency information. If it’s the company, can a consumer trust them to present the information in a clear and unbiased way? With the environmental movement, a marketing practice nick-named “green-washing” has emerged. This is when products or companies are presented as being environmentally friendly when they aren’t. There’s no reason that something similar couldn’t happen in the name of transparency. A company presents that they are following a process that ensures a quality herbal product when they aren’t.
That being said, transparency is still a good thing. It encourages herbal consumers to be more savvy. The savvier consumers are, the more companies have to work to keep up with them in order to stay profitable. A big question is where the consumer education effort will come from when it comes to herbal products? Media often plays a role in consumer education, but there are many examples of biased reporting and misreporting when it comes to events in the herbal marketplace. Government also plays a role, and they have been stepping up their efforts. However, they are often bound by the constraints of regulation, research, politics and liability, and their actions are usually reactive rather than proactive. There are good sources of information out there, but a consumer has to work to put it all together.
So What’s a Consumer to Do?
Keep an eye on the brand or company of the herbal products you use. Are they telling you more about how they operate and how their products are made? If so, you’ll know why. Think about what is important to you when it comes to transparency. What do you want to know about the product you’re using? Do you want to know where the herb(s) came from? How the company made sure there wasn’t contamination/adulteration? How the product was shipped and stored before it got to you? (Remember: Heat, light and oxygen degrade the active components of herbs.) What do you want to know about the company? Do you want to know how long they’ve been in business? How they chose their herb supplier(s)? Figuring out what you want to know allows you to set your own standard for transparency rather than letting a company do it for you.
Spend some time getting to know about different herbal preparations and how they’re typically made (See 18 Types of Herbal Preparations). If you have specific herbs you want to use, get to know what they are supposed to look and smell like and where they’re typically grown. Find out what parts of the plant should be used to make an herbal preparation. Take some time to understand what information is provided for you on a supplement label (See How to Really Read an Herbal Supplement Label Part I and Part 2). You don’t need to do a marathon research session. Allow yourself to be curious and to pick information up as you go along. If you’re interested in a lot of different herbs, look in your local library for guide books on herbs. All of these pieces of information will help you evaluate the information a company may share with you.
Next article will be posted March 1, 2016
Links to Learn More
NUTRAingredients-usa website – Should transparency be a priority for the supplements industry? – January 2016
NYS Attorney General website – A.G. Schneiderman Asks Major Retailers To Halt Sales Of Certain Herbal Supplements As DNA Tests Fail To Detect Plant Materials Listed On Majority Of Products Tested – February 2015
The Capabilities and Limitations of DNA Barcoding of Botanical Dietary Supplements – Report created by authentechnologies® and posted by Council for Responsible Nutrition – March 2015
NYS Attorney General website – A.G. Schneiderman Issues Cease-And-Desist Letters To 13 Makers Of Devil’s Claw Supplements Marketed To Arthritis Sufferers – September 2015
Natural Products Insider website – New York Attorney General Schneiderman Targets ‘Devil’s Claw’ Supplements – September 2015
Huffington Post website – A list of articles on green-washing companies
Detailed regulation language – FDA website – 21 CFR, Part 111– Current good manufacturing practice in manufacturing, packaging, labeling or holding operations for dietary supplements