Buying herbal supplements online or in-store is big business in Australia. But do weight-loss remedies and natural cancer cures really work or are they a waste of money?
Are they safe?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that herbal supplements are harmless, but “herbal” doesn’t always mean it’s safe to take. Meanwhile, “safe” products can also can also be dangerous when taken in combination with certain medications or other herbal supplements, or if taken by people with certain conditions.
Of the 10 most dangerous natural supplements, colloidal silver, kava and bitter orange are most widely available in Australia.
CHOICE is concerned that products considered unsafe are still being manufactured and sold here and overseas. While some have been banned or restricted (with labelling requirements, dosage specifications or import restrictions), some banned products have slipped through the net and others remain unrestricted. In Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is charged with making sure the complementary medicine products for sale are safe. The TGA also maintains a list of relatively safe complementary medicines.
Do they work?
There are plenty of complementary medicines that may be safe but have no proven benefit, and consumers could be wasting their money and bypassing more effective treatment. The TGA requires companies to hold evidence of the effectiveness of products, but that evidence is rarely audited and products can be sold simply on the basis of historical precedent for use with certain conditions.
CHOICE wants a system introduced that allows a manufacturer to have the effectiveness of their product independently evaluated. If proven effective, a supplement would be awarded a Green Tick, similar to the Heart Foundation’s Red Tick.
The 10 best natural supplements have been shown to be probably safe for most people and possibly or probably effective in appropriate doses for certain conditions. One problem with the current regulatory system is that products with potentially useful ingredients, such as St John’s wort, contain active components that are known to be variable — or are not precisely known at all. So different products, supposedly containing the same ingredients at the same dose, are unlikely to be equally effective.
You should always talk to your doctor or pharmacist before starting any supplement. Also, most have not been studied in pregnant or breastfeeding women. The list of interactions and side effects in the lists below is not all-inclusive.