Making Sense of Labels

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Shopping for herbal supplements can be as confusing as reading the Yoga Sutra in Sanskrit. With the various health claims advertised on the labels, different quantities and sizes, and the different ways the herbs are manufactured, what do you need to know in order to make the best decision? There are four key areas to focus on: labels; potency; delivery system, such as tincture or capsules; and quantity.

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Labels: In 1994, the U.S. Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), spelling out clear warnings to manufacturers on labeling and marketing their products. The law allows manufacturers to make only general claims about how a product effects the body, referred to as "structure-function" claims. For example, an herb that benefits the eyes may state, "beneficial for eye health," implying a benefit to the eye structure, or "beneficial for the health of your vision," indicating it aids eye function. But it may not say, "cures glaucoma."

Unfortunately, the law limits the consumer's ability to know what health conditions the herb is used for. For example, "vision health" could mean anything. In these cases, you can consult a self-help herb book for guidance. A good one is The Natural Pharmacy (Prima Publishing, 1999).

Potency: Three considerations effect cost: whether they are ground-up raw herbs, whole herb extracts, or standardized extracts. Ground-up raw herbs are cheaper, but also weaker. I avoid them because they're less effective and tend to have higher bacterial and fungal counts.

Whole herb extracts are safer, more concentrated, and generally more effective than raw herbs. With a few exceptions, traditional herbal healing systems cook their herbs in water, forming a concentrated tea.The remaining inert bulk plant material is then filtered and thrown out. Today, extraction companies can better preserve and concentrate an herb's active components in their original proportions, while also killing any microbes. The tea is then spray-dried into a powdered form and put into capsules. Whole herb extracts are usually twice as expensive as raw herbs—but have up to five times greater efficiency—plus they're often easier to digest and absorb.

Standardized extracts are even stronger and more expensive because of the cost of extraction. They are a hybridization of traditional and pharmaceutical methods in which the most active ingredient in the plant is isolated out and concentrated. In some cases that can be useful—the consumer is guaranteed a minimal standardized amount of the herb's active ingredient. But what if the herb works by virtue of several active ingredients that work in synergy only when in their natural proportions? That's why I lean toward whole herb extracts. They contain all of the active components of the herb in its natural potency.

Delivery System: Herbs can be consumed in a variety of ways, but the most common are tincture and capsules. Tinctures should indicate the weight ratio of herbal material to liquid, thus a 1:2 contains more herbal material than a 1:4 concentration. Most people prefer capsules because the herb's often bitter taste is hidden. Yet traditionalists believe this is a mistake because the taste contains an important aspect of its healing ability. For that reason tinctures are considered better. But if you just can not find a certain herb palatable, capsules are better than nothing.

Quantity: If you choose to take your capsule form, be aware that they vary in both size and count. Watch out for products that have more capsules but may be smaller in size. Do the math: 90 350 mg capsules is less herb than 70 500mg capsules.

Herb columnist James Bailey practices Ayurveda, Oriental Medicine, acupuncture, herbal medicine, and vinyasa yoga from his home in Santa Monica, California.