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Health benefits of dietary supplements

Standard terminology: An important first step in evaluating health benefits
January 1999

Not all terms used to describe dietary supplements, particularly botanicals, are well-defined or consistently applied. A name used on one product label may not mean the same thing as it does on another. This makes it difficult to establish the health benefits of a particular type of supplement or to know which brand will work best. It also presents significant challenges in testing for product purity. Plants contain dozens of chemical components, many of which are biologically active -- meaning that they have an effect on the human body. Different ratios of these biologically active compounds produce different effects.

Wide array of names for plant parts, varieties, and individual species

In addition to variation in what part of a plant is used, the name of a dietary supplement on a label may refer to more than one plant variety. For example, echinacea may refer to the species echinacea augustifolia or echinacea purpurea.This is not just a difference in name. Different varieties have different biologically active compounds or different ratios of those compounds. For example, Korean ginseng and American ginseng have different proportions of the two main ginsenocides, RG1 and RB1, as well as other chemical differences. These two varieties of ginseng have different biological effects -- so it's not enough simply to ask how much ginsenocide is present because that does not distinguish between RG1 and RB1, and also does not test for the presence of other important components.

Terminology is further complicated by the common practice of blending

Some supplements are combined into a unique blend, which is then given a new name coined by its producer and often trademarked. Manufacturers hope that their unique blend will become well-known by its brand name, giving them a marketing advantage (as well as a monopoly on that blend). This not only adds new names to the dietary supplement vocabulary, it promotes common usage of brand names in place of generic names (as with Xerox copies, Kleenex tissues, and Band-Aids bandages). As long as terms remain loosely defined and do not refer to a standard set of ingredients, the task of evaluating them remains elusive. Furthermore, when a name is not well-defined, clinical trials and quality control checks can only be performed on a single name brand, whether blended or single ingredient.

Standardized terminology for herbal products

To help standardize terms, a significant work was published by the American Herbal Products Association, called the Herbs of Commerce. It is the most commonly used reference for herbs. It provides a compilation of common names "standardized" to botanical names and is used as a basis for FDA labeling regulations that went into effect in March 1999.

See also SQ's Information about specific supplements.


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More about health benefits:

Will dietary supplements benefit your health?

Standard terminology: an important first step in evaluating health benefits

What kinds of scientific evidence are useful for substantiating a health benefit claim?

Evaluating the research

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(c) Copyright 1999-2003 Dietary Supplement Quality Initiative. For permission to reprint, please contact our editor.