Lead? Aerobic bacteria? Misleading labels? Consumer Reports tested popular brands of the widely used supplements; here's what they found.
In a perfect world, humans would be able to rely on plant-based remedies and in doing so, improve health while reducing reliance on pharmaceuticals. Mother Nature is a brilliant doctor, one whom we've relied on for millennia.
Unfortunately, the botanical supplement industry is not so perfect. There is a notable lack of regulation – as in, the FDA has to prove a supplement is not safe before they can remove it from the market – and as such has created an industry rife with shenanigans. That some 23,000 people a year end up in the emergency room after taking a supplement says a lot. (This isn't to say that all supplement makers are unscrupulous – not at all; but with little oversight, there is room for trouble.)According to the American Botanical Council, on the top of the list in popularity for 2018 were horehound and echinacea – horehound can be found in Ricola cough drops; echinacea is sold as a single supplement, but is also an ingredient in Airborne. And sneaking up from behind is turmeric, whose sales grew 30.5 percent in the year prior and is now the third most popular botanical supplement.
With all of this in mind, Consumer Reports (CR) decided to put on their investigation hats and test turmeric (AKA curcumin) and echinacea pills for purity and potency.
What they found was disturbing, though at this point, not surprising. They write:
Of the 16 echinacea and 13 turmeric products we tested, we identified concerns with more than a third of them, including elevated levels of lead and bacteria, as well as low levels of key active compounds.
Because of the aforementioned dearth of regulation, the standards that various companies use, if they use them at all, are all over the place. Thus, CR’s scientists created their own thresholds based on their expertise; their results are meant to "help consumers compare their options and are not indicators of a product’s compliance with any given standard."
Eleven out of 13 turmeric products met the CR standards, as did just six of the 16 echinacea products.
LeadOne turmeric product exceeded the lead limits set by CR, and six echinacea products did as well.
CR explains that their lead limits are more conservative than the standards set by U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), but, “No amount of lead is acceptable,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety research and testing at CR.
Aerobic bacteriaOne turmeric product and one echinacea product exceeded the USP limits for aerobic bacteria. While CR did not find the scarier E. coli or salmonella in the products, they explain that the presence of aerobic bacteria indicates "that products were manufactured or processed in unsanitary conditions."
Key active compoundsIn echinacea, the good stuff is known as phenols; in turmeric, it's the curcuminoids – these are the compounds thought to deliver the benefits. Lo and behold, one echinacea product had less than 20 percent of the phenol count claimed on the label. Two other echinacea products had no detectable amount of a key phenol associated with the echinacea species listed on the label. The turmeric products appear to have passed this test.
A growing body of evidence keeps demonstrating that supplements can do a lot of harm. It's hard to deny the appeal of reaping nature's goodness by swallowing a pill, but given the lack of regulation, reports like this are important in making sure we are not accidentally poisoning ourselves in the meantime. Do the research and stick with brands that are trustworthy; or try using fresh ingredients. I've always said to rely on the farmer's market rather than the pharmacy, even when it comes to healthy-seeming botanical supplements.
For more on the research and to learn which brands were included, see: Consumer Reports Tests: Turmeric and Echinacea.