If you’ve ever turned over a supplement bottle looking for simple answers, there’s a good chance you were left with some questions instead. Admittedly, the information that’s packed into such a small amount of real estate can be confusing — vague on some points and exceedingly specific on others.
Labels on drugs are very different — and for good reason. Pharmaceutical companies are required to be very specific because of their high potential for toxicity. “Take ibuprofen, for example — the label must list all active chemical ingredients in the product, the specific milligram amount in each tablet, along with what defines an exact dose,” Dr. Rawls says.
This is less necessary with herbal products, Dr. Rawls continues, because herbs are much more like food — the potential for toxicity is extraordinarily lower. “Each capsule may contain multiple herbs, each of which can have a spectrum of hundreds or even thousands of different phytochemical components, and there are no set dosages on any of them.”
Indeed, plants are much more complex and variable substances than drugs. While this might seem like cause for concern, it shouldn’t be. Herbs have been used by humans for thousands of years, and because we’ve evolved in parallel, our bodies are well equipped to process chemical substances found in most commonly used herbs.
Drugs, on the other hand, are newly synthesized chemical compounds that humans have never been exposed to before. Even after clinical trials, when a drug first hits the market, most of its actions in the body are unknown.
Despite these differences, you can still get a lot of valuable information from an herbal supplement label if you know how to interpret it properly. Here, eight facts that will help you better navigate and understand them — and ultimately help you choose the highest quality and effective products.
1. The More Info Under the “Supplement Facts” Section, the Better.
Like the “Nutrition Facts” section of a food label, “Supplement Facts” is where manufacturers list specific ingredients and the amounts of each included per serving. “The more information given in this section about each ingredient, the higher the probability that a product is going to be reliable,” Dr. Rawls says.
Put another way, what’s not on the label can be as revealing as what is.
• The Scientific or Species Name
Different species of herbs may have different activity levels, so knowing which one you’re taking is important. For instance, if you’re in the market for rhodiola, look for a product that specifies Rhodiola rosea, the only species that has significant activity, and avoid any that have only the word “rhodiola” which could be one of several possible species. For reishi mushroom, Ganoderma lucidum is the species you want.
• The Word “Extract”
Having the word “extract” on the label indicates that active phytochemicals have been extracted from the plant. Otherwise, you’re probably getting whole ground-up herb, which tends to be mostly fiber and very little of the beneficial plant phytochemicals.
“There are different methods for extraction, but they all serve the purpose of pulling the active chemicals out of the plant and drying them into a concentrated powder that’s much more potent than dried whole herbs,” explains Dr. Rawls. “Just be aware that whole-herb products seem like a good deal at first: a $10 bottle might have twice as many capsules as the $30 herbal extract, but often you’re getting more potency for your money with the extract.”
• Percentages and Ratios of Top Chemical Components
Standardization is another important indicator of product quality. When a company lists one or more plant components along with a percentage — like 3% rosavins in a rhodiola extract — that means the extract is standardized to contain that much of a key active compound present in the herb. In the above example, the company has gone through the trouble to test the potency of rosavins, active compounds found in the root of the rhodiola.
Plants contain many different active phytochemical compounds, but testing for one key component provides a method to define quality and compare different products, Dr. Rawls says. Rhodiola found in two different products by different manufacturers should be the same if the standardization is the same for each.
2. “Proprietary Blends” Often Hide Low Quality — or Other Things.
Supplements that blend multiple herbs rather than relying on just one are usually a good thing. “There’s a lot of value in blends, because you get synergy among the plants, which increases potency,” Dr. Rawls says. Just make sure each of those ingredients are listed separately with the amounts and potency of each extract so you know exactly what you’re getting.
Unfortunately, some companies instead list the formulation as a “proprietary blend,” meaning a combination of ingredients used by only one supplement manufacturer. They may even name a few different substances in the blend, but then provide no other information. And that can be deceiving — even dangerous.
“They want you to think their blends are so special that it’s a secret, and they aren’t telling anyone exactly what’s in it,” Dr. Rawls says. “But proprietary blends can be a red flag that they may have loaded the supplement up with the cheapest ingredients possible, including low-quality, whole-powdered herbs.”
Proprietary blends can also hide stimulants like caffeine, which can be disguised in botanicals like guarana or green tea — herbs that naturally contain caffeine or other stimulating compounds, Dr. Rawls says. “It’s there so people get a buzz or boost and feel like the supplement is doing something,” he says. “It’s a common practice, but the consumer isn’t really getting anything beneficial.”
3. Trademarked and Patented Ingredients Can Signal Quality — but Not Always.
Manufacturers of supplements usually purchase herbal extracts or other ingredients from outside suppliers, some of which may trademark or patent their ingredients and give them a brand name. You may see this on the label in the Supplement Facts section or elsewhere.
“Some suppliers develop a specialized extraction method that delivers a high or standardized and dependable potency, so they trademark or patent that ingredient,” Dr. Rawls says. “Because there can be a lot of potency variability with herbs, when you get a company that’s gone to the nth degree to get the most standardized extract, that’s an extremely reliable ingredient — you can depend on it dose to dose, year to year, to always be the same.”
No surprise, these brand-name ingredients tend to be more expensive, but often they’re worth it. “Sometimes a company will take additional steps to perform clinical studies on that particular patented extract,” Dr. Rawls says. “And that allows them to make specific claims on it.” He cites the example of Sensoril® ashwagandha extract, which is about 8 times more potent than the other standardized ashwagandha extracts available.
However, sometimes brand names don’t pay off, such as when a company overstates an ingredient’s potency and benefits, and then charges exorbitant amounts for it. The checks-and-balances system here is independent, third-party testing: Reputable companies do this with every new batch of product to confirm the bottle’s contents match what’s on the label.
“At the end of the day, it’s about finding an honest supplement company that does their homework and goes the extra mile to make sure customers get the best product at a reasonable price,” says Dr. Rawls.
4. Dosing Recommendations Can be Vague, but for Good Reason.
Unlike both over-the-counter and prescription drugs, whose labels tell you exactly how much to take and how often, herbal supplement dosing is generally much more loosely defined. That’s due to drugs’ higher potential for side effects and toxicity, and so they have a very narrow dose range. In other words, if you take a dose that’s higher than recommended on the bottle, you could suffer serious side effects or even be poisoned.
This doesn’t really apply to most herbs. With the exception of certain effector herbs like St. John’s wort or kava, which have drug-like qualities, the majority of herbs have a very broad dose range. This means that the dose required to gain benefit may range from a very low dose to a very high dose, depending on how much benefit you want to gain.
For most commonly used herbal products, even a dose much higher than the average dose recommended on the bottle may have low potential to cause harm (especially compared to drugs). It varies between herbs, of course, but it’s hard to get into trouble with an herbal product. (Note that this is less true with vitamin and vitamin-like supplements, for which dosing recommendations should be followed specifically.)
For that reason, expect herbal supplement labels to give you a “suggested use” dose range — the least amount you should consider taking to gain a benefit. “But in general, with restorative herbs, the more you take, the more benefit you’re going to get,” Dr. Rawls says.
He recognizes, though, that most people are willing to take only so many pills and are able to pay only so much. “A good formulator will try to get the highest amount of active phytochemical ingredients from an herb into each capsule, using the most potent and highest quality herbs possible, and then balance that with what people can afford,” says Dr. Rawls. Ultimately, what helps customers most is something that both works and is sustainable long-term.
5. Cautions may be Overly Cautious.
Supplement makers aren’t required to include health-related cautions on labels such as “consult your healthcare provider, especially if you’re pregnant or nursing.” Yet many include these both to educate their customers and reduce liability.
Here’s what’s important to know that’s not on the label:
- If you’re not taking any other medications and you don’t have any serious medical conditions, you may not need to consult a healthcare provider if you plan to take restorative herbal supplements because they are incredibly safe, Dr. Rawls says. (Note that plant-based supplements are very different from sports or performance-enhancing supplements, some of which have been found to contain banned or harmful substances.)
- If you are taking medications or drugs, do consult your doctor. Just keep in mind that “many conventional medical doctors don’t know much about herbs, even though in a lot of cases, herbs can help reduce your dose of often-toxic drugs,” Dr. Rawls says. If your doctor isn’t knowledgeable, consider also finding a good certified herbalist who can help you — check out the American Herbal Products Association website to find a reliable practitioner.
- If you’re pregnant or nursing, or if you’re wondering whether your children can take herbs, it’s definitely best to talk to your doctor, your child’s doctor, and/or an herbalist before taking any new herbs. It’s not that herbs aren’t safe, but there are a few that should be avoided by certain populations because of the way they are processed by the body. Plus, there’s a lack of research in these populations and thus an abundance of caution is used when it comes to them taking anything.
6. Claims on Labels are Regulated by the Government.
“While there’s usually little government oversight into what actually goes into herbal supplements, there’s so much oversight around what you can and can’t say about supplements on labels,” Dr. Rawls explains. That’s why you may see vague-ish phrases like “supports brain health” or “balances energy and stress,” as opposed to more concrete ones like “cures the common cold” or “reduces inflammation.”
You’ll also see the following standard disclaimer: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
Herbal products must carry this statement — even if clinical studies have linked its ingredient(s) to improved health or even a reduced risk of certain diseases — because the FDA simply doesn’t evaluate herbal products themselves, so it can’t vouch for them.
As a result, most reputable companies end up walking a fine line between trying to give helpful information to consumers while also complying with the law. Unfortunately, a lot can get lost in translation, and sometimes the consumer misses out as a result.
“The FDA doesn’t want companies making false claims, which is good,” Dr. Rawls says. “But the laws are so restrictive that it’s difficult for honest supplement companies to convey the magnitude of value that these herbs offer.”
And as is true in any industry, some companies are just bad eggs and shirk the rules, making outrageous promises on product labels in the hopes of making a few quick bucks before regulators catch on, Dr. Rawls says. Unfortunately, that ends up casting a shadow on the entire industry.
So how can you protect yourself? First, be wary of outrageous and too-good-to-be-true claims, like labels that definitively state products will treat or prevent disease or that guarantee results. It’s a tip-off that the company is on the wrong side of the law and may be a fly-by-night operation only out to make money.
And always do your homework: Explore a company’s website, look for independent reviews, and seek independent references either online or in books to learn more about the herbs being used in a product, Dr. Rawls says.
7. “Certification” Stamps and Seals Aren’t That Important.
Just as the government doesn’t closely regulate what companies put into supplements, they also do not certify that they are free of contaminants or even contain what labels say. Some supplement manufacturers do recognize the value of this information, and so they pay third parties (both nonprofit and for-profit ones exist) to test products or ingredients and use their seals of approval on labels.
It’s important to note that these seals don’t necessarily mean a product is effective, high-quality, or even safe; often, all they signify is that the product contains what the label says.
Then there are seals that, while accurate, don’t signify anything special at all. Take those that use the FDA symbol, or say FDA Facility or FDA Approved. The law requires all supplement manufacturing facilities be FDA registered, but this does not mean the FDA has ever been there, nor that the products manufactured there are FDA “approved.” It simply means the facility is registered per federal regulations.
The same goes for seals that say “GMP” (short for Good Manufacturing Practices) and “GMP Compliant.” It is federally required that all supplement manufacturers meet or exceed GMP standards. “GMP Certified,” though, does have special meaning: It indicates that a third party has assessed the company’s operation and verified that they actually are meeting or exceeding these standards.
Further complicating things is that some supplement companies design their own official-looking seals and stamps and slap them on a product label as a marketing ploy. They want consumers to think the product has been verified or certified to give it an air of quality, safety, and efficacy.
If you’re interested in a product with a “certification” or “verification” seal or stamp, the best thing to do is look closely at that seal for the name of a third party. If there isn’t one, you know the seal is meaningless. If there is one, research exactly what it means — and, more importantly, what it doesn’t mean.
There’s a lot of hype out there — find an honest company you can trust and stick with them, advises Dr. Rawls. One seal he says signals a reliable company: The Certified B Corporation® seal. Brands that carry it are recognized as meeting the highest standards for corporate social responsibility.
8. To Be Truly Informed, Look Beyond the Label.
“Integrity is something that’s really hard to put on a label,” Dr. Rawls says. Indeed, a lot goes into the making of high-quality, effective, and trustworthy herbal supplements, and the details of that often don’t show up on a label. So it pays to look into whatever company you’re purchasing from.
Dig into the information they publish on their website — both about corporate practices and policies as well as about the ingredients in their products. For example, manufacturers that are dedicated to quality often send individual ingredients from outside suppliers to independent third parties for testing to ensure quality, but they might not state as much on labels, Dr. Rawls says.
Likewise, supplement company websites should realistically include research and extensive background information on their ingredients. If you’re not finding the answers or information you’re looking for, call their customer support team; a reputable company should have ready answers for you. If they don’t, move on.
“I guarantee there’s another, reliable company out there you can turn to for straight answers and herbal products you can trust,” says Dr. Rawls.