why ‘natural supplements’ need regulation

By Alison Campbell 12/05/2010


 Every so often the issue of regulating supplements and complementary & alternative medicines comes up. And when it does, you tend to get responses that include: these ‘treatments’ are natural & so completely OK; people have the right to use them to self-medicate; & so on.

I don’t have an issue with the ‘right to self-medicate’ part – as long as the products people are using are fit for purpose. Now this should really include some form of regulation, so that the folks using the products can be sure that said products contain the claimed ‘natural’ active ingredients, and that those ingredients are present in a standardised form – there shouldn’t be dose variation between different batches of product, etc.

If you don’t think that’s a good enough reason for regulation, how about this headline from yesterday’s Royal Society science news feed:

Erectile dysfunction products recalled: ESR confirms Stallion, Volcanic, Tomcat Ali & SZM Formula for Men contain significant quantities of an active ingredient available only by prescription.

Strange, considering that Tomcat Ali claims to be a natural product made from a rare herb found ony in SE Asia, providing what men need for erectile functioning without all those nasty side effects from bad synthetic pharmaceuticals. Similarly SZM Formula for Men supposedly contains the same herb, & claims to be an ‘all natural herbal dietary supplement’. I note with interest that claims to “support” male libido & functioning – ‘support’ is a weasel word that means precisely nothing in a medical/scientific context, which is why it’s used widely in this sort of advertising. Anything more specific would probably get the authors in trouble with regulatory authorities. (No I am not going to link to the websites for these products – why should I send traffic their way??? But they’re easy to find via google if you absolutely must.)

It turns out that Medsafe has ordered the immediate recall of all batches of the four products after tests showed that they contain the undeclared prescription medicine tadalafil. Medsafe’s investigations found the products were being sold by retail in health food stores and pharmacies as well as ‘adult’ shops and over the Internet.

That the products are adulterated in this way doesn’t really surprise me. If the rare, natural herb really did have the effects ascribed to it, its active ingredient would also be on the pharmaceutical list by now. How better to ensure that your customers get the results they’re expecting (& so coming back to buy some more) than to add the active ingredient in Cialis to your ‘natural’ product?

But, if you want to self-medicate with natural products, then surely regulation is a Good Thing, as it would help to ensure that you really are getting unmodified, unadulterated, all-natural products without unknown & potentially unsafe additives. Which is an important point here: tadalafil, the pharmaceutical drug added to these so-called erectile dysfunction products, turns out to interfere with heart medications – something that could be harmful & potentially fatal. You may say that other products aren’t tainted in this way, but without the checks & balances inherent in regulation – how could you possibly know?


0 Responses to “why ‘natural supplements’ need regulation”

  • I remember a friend at an analytical consulting company telling me that when they tested a “natural” male enhancement product they found it contained extremely high levels of lead, almost like it had been made from old batteries and dirt.
    As to the whole “natural is good” idea, I find it useful to remind advocates of natural substances that many of the most lethal toxins are, shock horror, NATURAL! This includes the toxins from botulinum and tetanus, aflatoxins (molds), saxitoxins (seafood), tetradotoxin (puffer fish), palytoxin (coral) and ricin.

  • Mmmm, I use the ricin example when I’m giving talks about the ‘natural is good’ fallacy. It’s amazing how many people don’t seem to realise that all these poisons are naturally-sourced…

  • What is this, Strawman Central? :)
    No-one credibly claims all natural things are good, we’ve known this for centuries. There are trivial examples of this. Several in my own (non-synthetically tended) garden!

    I don’t have an issue with the ‘right to self-medicate’ part – as long as the products people are using are fit for purpose.

    Why? You’re just begging the question here, surely: Sound like “people can take whatever they decide as long as it meets my criteria for fitness” to me. I’m struggling to see a reasonable defence for stopping people doing potentially stupid things that only impact themselves. (Also, if you start down this road, be sure you know where it leads…) People do have the right to do stupid things.

    Stopping people from cheating others/exposing them to danger for financial gain, sure. It would be good to see the back of that. But there’s a fair bit of that about among us humans, and it is not only (or even predominantly) in the area of natural health that this occurs… I’d challenge you to explain how regulating natural health products is the way to achieve that outcome.

    Once again, the issue is not the science, it’s the politics.

    • Some people do claim all things natural are good, that’s part of my point.

      It’s also somewhat naive to say that it’s OK to take ‘natural remedy x’ as long as it impacts only on that individual. But take ‘Tomcat Ali’ for example: some older guy takes it at the same time as he’s taking his heart meds; he has a major but non-fatal heart attack – & ends up costing the rest of us quite a lot of money for his on-going health care. If that’s not an impact on others I’m not sure what is. Proper regulation would go some way to avoiding problems like this.

  • rainman,

    I believe by ‘purpose’ Alison mean the purpose stated on the remedy, e.g. “end headaches” or whatever, not what a consumer dreams up.

    In addition to that most (all?) stupid things people might to themselves invariably don’t impact just on themselves there is the “do no harm” ethic, which applies to themselves as much as to others.

    It seems to me that your argument fights itself when you say it’s OK to prevent cheating: preventing people from doing stupid things is preventing people from cheating themselves.

    Alison pointed to simple steps that could be taken, ones I’ve written about previously too: label the remedies accurately stating their actual contents and have the companies held to producing what they say they are. There is nothing “political” about that.

  • Rainman, can I come and live in your world where “No-one credibly claims all natural things are good”. :-)

    I’ve just been debating someone elsewhere who claims that “everything is natural because it all exists in the natural universe” and that even the many novel synthetic compounds I have synthesised are therefore “natural”.
    It’s amazing how different people can have different definitions for the same word.

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