Natural Foods Merchandiser

Finding Information on Troubled Herbs

From "Behind The Label: A Guide For Retailers," A Supplement to Natural Foods Merchandiser


Can I keep taking kava? Is St. John's wort effective? Lately, questions raised in the media about the safety of herbs and supplements have troubled all but the staunchest naturals customers. Fortunately, there are many resources available to retailers so they can offer pertinent and accurate information to concerned customers.

The National Nutritional Foods Association carries updated bulletins on questionable or possibly harmful herbs on its Web site, There, the association has backgrounders on kava, ephedra, germanium and other controversial—and not so controversial—herbs and supplements. The informational sheets review clinical data on supplements and give a general thumbs up or down on their sale. Retailers are discouraged from selling germanium, for example, because of problems with toxic contamination in its manufacture.

"One of our main goals at NNFA is to get information out to retailers and customers," says Phillip Harvey, the association's chief science officer. NNFA can't specifically advise people about what herbs to take, for liability reasons, but Harvey says he looks for scientific substantiation: "Our role is to look at the [evidence], but we tend to lean on the side of innocent until proven guilty."

The only organization capable of pulling an herb from the market is the Food and Drug Administration, Harvey says. "They have the final word."

The Council for Responsible Nutrition also produces guidelines for such substances as ephedra and vitamin A and offers a chart outlining the safety of popular vitamins and minerals.

The American Herbal Products Association publishes a monthly newsletter and posts current articles on industry and government actions regarding herbs on its Web site, There are also links to other herbal organizations, medical journals and government agencies that monitor herb use.

AHPA, NNFA and CRN are trade organizations representing herb and dietary supplements manufacturers. Much of the information they offer is restricted to members. An NNFA membership for retailers is $30 a year. AHPA memberships range from $1,000 to $50,000 a year depending on your company's sales volume. CRN memberships range from $2,500 to $150,000 a year depending on category, voting privileges and sales volume.

If you want more scientific information, contact the American Botanical Council, a nonprofit research and education center based in Austin, Texas. Memberships cost between $50 and $250 a year.

ABC publishes HerbalGram and posts in-depth monographs on popular herbs on its Web site at The council is also selling its new herb reference book, The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs (Thieme New York, 2003), which includes monographs, clinical overviews and information sheets on the 29 most commonly used herbs in the United States. A separate chapter covers 13 proprietary herbal products that have undergone clinical studies.

Mark Blumenthal, ABC executive director, stresses his organization's independence from manufacturers and marketers. "We want to see more information about the appropriate uses of herbs, and we want to see that information made more available," he says.

ABC's conclusion about St. John's wort, the popular herbal antidepressant, is that the primary clinical study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in April 2001, is flawed: "All the negative press was all about how the herb didn't work, but not about the study itself," says Blumenthal, who adds that the mainstream antidepressant Zoloft didn't work on many of the test subjects, either.

ABC has concluded that kava use is linked to liver toxicity in some people, "but there's not enough information to indict it and not enough to exonerate it, either," Blumenthal says.

The ABC herb monographs are broken down into three sections—an eight- to 15-page focus for professionals, a two-page clinical overview and a one-page information flier. You can decide which works best for your needs. "They are designed to be photocopied and used by doctors and nurses and to be given to patients," Blumenthal says.

Perhaps the best direct source of scientific information relating to herbs is The online database offers a search engine that generates links to research on herbs from A to Z.

Randy Barrett is president of the Business Writers Group in Falls Church, Va.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.