CBC MARKETPLACE: FOOD » FUNCTIONAL
Should 'herbal food' be regulated?
Broadcast: Nov 28, 2000
Producer: Ines Colabrese; Researcher: Laura Boast
Herbs are now being put
in processed foods and drinks, and that's prompted calls
for greater government regulation of these new foods
Toronto actress Christina Carr is a big fan of herbal remedies.
She's had trouble with doctors and traditional medicine, she
In trying to find alternative solutions, Carr
added herbal teas and juice drinks to her diet. Her favourite
is the Smart FX juice with Gingko Biloba, a herb that's supposed
to help memory.
"Since I've started drinking (it), I have
had an increase in memory, increase in energy, I have an increase
in confidence to the point that I've added to my herbs,"
Carr told Marketplace.
Smart FX calls their product a "premium
natural beverage." But other marketers call products
with herbal extracts "functional foods." They say
their products offer health benefits beyond what you would
get from a juice or drink or a bag of potato chips.
Christina Carr says she's increased her memory and energy since
drinking a juice containing Gingko Biloba
The same argument was made years ago, when iodine
was added to salt and vitamin D was added to milk. This was
done because we lacked those nutrients. It was also done with
great controls, so that we didn't get too much of any one
mineral or vitamin.
A similar thing is now happening with herbal
extracts. Herbs like St. John's Wort and Echinacea are being
introduced to processed foods. But the monitoring is much
less stringent today.
Monitoring much less stringent
Toronto dietician Rosie Schwartz has found lots
of functional foods on grocery store shelves. Products like
Personality Puffs which are supposed to contain a little St.
John's Wort and are designed to balance your personality.
There are Kava Kava Corn Chips, which are supposed
to help relax you. Gingko Biloba Rings contain the herb to
It's the labelling that concerns Schwartz. Often,
there's no indication how much in the way of herbs have been
added to the food.
Toronto dietician Rosie
Schwartz is concerned by what's not
"We don't know how much is in here and
whether it's actually a tiny bit or in fact there's quite
a bit," Schwartz said. "There's nothing on the package
to tell you."
"Now the question is, if there is enough
to make any difference, then how many servings should you
be eating in a day? There's nothing there about limiting the
number of servings," Schwartz added.
Michael Bain heads the company that sells Rootz
n Frootz, a functional beverage. He's happy to talk about
the active ingredients in his product.
"It works out to approximately five to
six thousand milligrams of the active herbal ingredient within
the herbs," Bain told Marketplace. "It's
a huge amount of herbs that we're putting in our drinks."
Michael Bain, head of
a company that makes a functional beverage, says consumers
worried about a product's ingredients should call the
company and insist on getting a list
But Bain suggests that if you're concerned with
the amount of herbs in a product, you should take an active
approach. Phone the manufacturer and demand to know what's
in the product. If they won't tell you, he says, tell them
you won't buy it.
Some companies are even marketing to children
- products like Straight A Lollipops. The package suggests
the suckers can help children think straight. The first ingredient
listed on the label is sugar. The second is glucose. After
that, there's an unspecified amount of Ginkgo Biloba and Canadian
Ginseng. Thirty of these suckers cost $7.80.
These products are sold with little regulatory
supervision. We took some of them to Health Canada, including
a bottle of Arizona tea with what the label describes as mind-enhancing
Label says Straight
A Lollipops can help your kids think straight. First two ingredients
are sugar and glucose - then an unspecified amount of Gingko Biloba
"This is...why we have to look at the regulations
because as it is right now, this is represented as food,"
said Health Canada's Phil Waddington. "It's got things
in it that you would think would enhance the memory. If the
potency in here is too low to have that effect, then people
are maybe misled when they buy it."
We asked the company that makes Arizona tea
how much Gingko Biloba is in their product. They wouldn't
tell us - for proprietary reasons. But they say it won't hurt
Dietician Rosie Schwartz is worried that drinking
or eating a lot of these products just might aggravate health
"We have to look
at the regulations." Health Canada's Phil Waddington
"If indeed there are appreciable amounts
of these herbs, there could be interactions," Schwartz
said. "For example with Gingko, it acts as a blood thinner
so if people are taking Vitamin E, aspirin, as well as other
blood thinning medication, it could enhance the action of
the blood thinners."
Waddington says there's usually so little of
the active ingredients, the products are rarely dangerous.
His concerns are with the packaging.
"I'm not worried about the health issues
with it, but I believe that the way that they're currently
on the market right now doesn't best represent the information
that the consumer would want about this product," Waddington
Waddington wants to see a clear list of the
amount of herbs in the package and the possible interactions
with drugs. Health Canada is working on regulations for the
packaging of these products and says these should be in place
in a year.
Some manufacturers do list the amount of herbs
their products contain. Traditional Medicinals' Breathe Easy
tea is a decongestant. Its package features a full disclosure
of active ingredients. That's because the company has gone
so far as to acquire a drug identification number (DIN), and
is considered an over-the-counter drug.
Alison Stephen wants the science behind these products beefed up
to the levels of drug trials
Regulation is something Michael Bain Of Rootz
n Frootz welcomes.
"I do believe that there should be some
kind of regulation put on products like this," Bain told
us. "And probably every one of my competitors would think
I'm a complete idiot to say this. As a consumer myself I want
to know what's in a product."
Need more than good packaging
Food scientist Alison Stephen wants more than
just good packaging. She wants the science behind these products
beefed up to the levels of drug trials.
"Traditionally that's not done in the food
area or in the nutritional area," Stephen notes. "We
need to start to do that kind of thing because if we have
these active ingredients, if they have benefits, we have to
also know if there's any down side to taking them. It's only
fair to the consumer to do that."
For now, dietician Rosie Schwartz says, you
should think twice before paying the premium price. You can't
be sure how much of the herb you're getting, so you may be
paying an inflated price for a snack food.
But back in Catherine Carr's kitchen, she says
it doesn't matter if the product is just a placebo.
"I couldn't tell you 150 per cent if it's
the actual herb or my belief in the herb," Carr says.
"In other words, if it's the pill or a placebo but it
works, and that's what matters."