- NEW YORK - Herbs, once relegated to the ranks of snake oil or voodoo in
the eyes of the medical establishment, are joining the mainstream as people
look for fast, cheap ways to cure ailments such as depression, anxiety
and memory loss.
- Led by baby boomers bent on staying young,
Americans spent an estimated $3.8 billion on herbs and other "botanicals"
in 1998, up from $2.5 billion in 1995, industry data shows.
- "We are the generation that said,
'Never trust anyone over 30.' We don't want to get sick and we certainly
don't want to get old," said John Cardellina, a chemist with the Council
for Responsible Nutrition, a group that promotes supplements.
- This rapid growth has forced doctors
and government regulators to take a closer look at the virtues and dangers
of herbs and pushed pharmaceutical makers and even food companies to start
jockeying for shares of these lucrative markets.
- In an attempt to refine its regulatory
approach, the federal Food and Drug Administration will meet with industry
groups, consumer advocates and health experts next month to discuss tighter
restrictions on health claims.
- Interest in herbs has been fueled by
greater understanding of the link between diet and disease. That interest
has turned into an explosion of sales with the help of the Internet, television
commercials and the burgeoning number of companies that now market dietary
- A recent Louis Harris survey found 90
percent of doctors and 96 percent of pharmacists reporting an upsurge in
consumer demand for herbal supplements over the past five years. Health
experts say this trend reflects an attempt among aging baby boomers to
stay young and healthy through "natural" methods.
- But the perception of herbs as natural
can have dangerous consequences. Synthetic drugs as powerful as heart medication
digitalis are based on natural plant ingredients. And like synthetic drugs,
herbal products can be dangerous when mixed with food and other medication.
- "Natural does not necessarily mean
safe," Cardellina said.
- WHAT'S REALLY IN THE BOTTLE?
- The government classifies botanicals
as dietary supplements, which are regulated like food. Companies can therefore
market these products without the rigorous approval process required for
drugs and the FDA can recall a product only after it has been found to
- "Anyone can claim that inside a
bottle is St. John's wort. I suspect there are less-than-quality products
out there," said Raymond Chang, a New York-based oncologist who uses
herbs to treat many patients. He accused the media of exaggerating the
number of cases of tainted herbs for the sake of a good story.
- "Obviously in large quantities,
inappropriate doses, or if the batch is tainted it can be dangerous, but
by and large herbs are very safe," Chang said.
- A growing body of scientific evidence
could bear out his claim and help bring the United States up to speed with
Asian and European countries with long histories of using herbs.
- In the past few years, medical journals
have published studies, many of them European, showing that some herbs
do have health benefits when tested in controlled clinical trials. For
example, saw palmetto has been shown to help men suffering from the effects
of an enlarged prostate, ginkgo biloba may help some Alzheimer's patients
and St. John's wort seems to help some people with mild symptoms of depression.
- But other studies have shown no benefits.
A recent trial showed that valerian, promoted as a sleep aid, did not help
a significant number of patients. Another recent study found that high
doses of St. John's wort may impair fertility.
- WHO NEEDS PROZAC WHEN YOU'VE GOT ST.
- These studies and market surveys illustrating
consumer demand for herbal products have prompted a handful of pharmaceutical
companies such as Bayer, American Home Products and SmithKline Beecham
to release their own brands.
- Warner-Lambert launched its line in October
after the Louis Harris survey found that nearly half of all Americans have
used herbal supplements at some time in their lives.
- "Surveys started to signal to us
that the mainstream medical community was opening up to natural compounds,"
Barry Turner, vice president of complementary medicine at Warner-Lambert,
said. "We want to help them understand how to integrate them into
their medical practice."
- Indeed, the Louis Harris survey found
that while most doctors are interested in herbal supplements few understand
them. In an attempt to educate physicians, the publisher of the popular
Physician's Desk Reference of prescription and other drugs issued a PDR
for Herbal Medicines in November.
- "The reality is that there is a
marketplace and it's just good business to be there," CRN's Cardellina
- Food companies also hope to get a slice
of the market. Products that have hit the shelves so far include potato
chips enhanced with kava kava, a herb promoted as relieving anxiety; iced
tea spiked with ginseng, alleged to have a range of benefits, and chicken
soup laced with echinacea, which supposedly boosts the immune system and
wards off colds.
- While clinical tests on these supplements
have shown mixed results, such "functional foods" now are a nearly
$15 billion a year industry, says the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
- The many products in this category, which
includes Power Bars, Gatorade, and foods fortified with vitamins and minerals,
may carry claims about health benefits of herbs, plant extracts and other
ingredients. They may not make specific claims to treat, mitigate, diagnose,
cure or prevent a disease.
- "Most mainstream food companies
don't market diet supplements - they market functional foods," Gene
Grabowski, a spokesman with the Grocery Manufacturers of America, said.
"But the line between the two is getting closer and closer."