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  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • September 2018
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What should the label on your herbal products tell you?

You have probably gotten used to reviewing ingredients in your food labels (good for you!), but have you looked at your herbal products? Although these products aren’t regulated by the Food & Drug Administration, there are labeling guidelines that are designed to help you know exactly what you are getting in your herbal products. There are many small batch herbal product providers, as well as some “homemade” brands on the market these days, so it is particularly important to be sure you are buying a product that is consistently produced (e.g., the formula, or “recipe,” is standardized for each batch) by knowledgeable herbalists, and that the ingredients are tracked by the company producing the product — in case you would have a reaction or there would be a recall of one of the ingredients by a supplier.

At a minimum, labels should contain the following:

  • Indications for use (no claims of cure)
  • All ingredients, including common and botanical names of herbs and essential oils
  • Quantity of each herbal constituent, or ratio of herb to liquid
  • Safety issues
  • Recommended dosage
  • Storage information
  • Lot or batch number
  • Shelf life or expiration date
  • Contact info for supplier

There is also one thing that should not be included on a label:

  • Claims or suggestions of a product providing a cure, unless these have been substantiated by research and approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

It sounds a bit over-burdensome, perhaps, but these guidelines are really important for some very basic reasons. Some of the most important reasons include:

Common and botanical names. The herb that I call boneset (eupatorium perfoliatum) may be a very different plant from what another herbalist calls boneset (symphytum officinale). Are these the same herbs, and do they have the same actions? The answer is no — they are two completely different plants, yet both may be called boneset because they are used for issues related to bones. However, boneset (eupatorium perfoliatum) is used for the treatment of deep-seated pain in limbs that can occur in influenza, colds, rheumatism and even syphilis; comfrey (symphytum officinale), also known as boneset, is more commonly used as a wound healer (internally and externally), to encourage proper scar formation, and to treat varicose veins. It is also useful in treatment of hemorrhage; however, there are concerns about liver toxicity and so must be used with caution. So, if a product simply says “boneset,” we don’t know which of these herbs is being used — and we need to know, so that we are sure the product meets our needs, and so we can be aware of possible contraindications with medications or health conditions we might have.

Ingredient order. Many herbs and essential oils come from plants that are either hard to harvest, or which are endangered due to overfarming and/or habitat destruction. This makes these herbs and essential oils more expensive. If I am really looking for the properties of a specific herb, and its name is used on the product label, I want to know that it is one of the main ingredients, rather than being a “minor player” whose name is being used to encourage me to purchase the product. Being able to see where it is on the ingredient list (toward the beginning or at the end) gives me some idea of the quantity of herb I can expect in a product.

Ratio. The ratio of herb is written either in actual amounts (e.g., echinacea purpurea 750 mg) or in a ratio of herb. For example, echinacea purpurea, (1:5) ratio tells you that for every 1 part of herb, there are 5 parts liquid (oil, alcohol, glycerine, water): so, if you do the math, you know that the product contains 20 percent herbal material. Knowledgeable herbalists refer to Herbal Materia Medica and standardized dosing guidelines provided by reputable sources to determine proper ratios. Without this information, you have no way of knowing the strength of the herbal product.

Lot number. This gives you a sense that the supplier is carefully monitoring every batch of product made, and its ingredients. Having a lot (or batch) number is important in the event of a recall of a constituent of the product, or if you have an unexpected reaction to the product.

“Going herbal” is becoming more popular — which is great to see — but I encourage you to do it with the same amount of care you use when purchasing food and other medicine. Read the labels, understand the constituents of the products, and find suppliers who know herbs and provide you with the information you need to make a safe and informed decision. There is more to using herbs than finding a recipe on the internet, so be sure you check those labels to get what you really want in your products!

T. Heather Herdman, RN, PhD

T. Heather Herdman, RN, PhD is co-owner of Sweet Willow Naturals in Green Bay, where we have over 140 organic herbs and 70 organic spices available for you to craft your own products, or to simply enjoy as tea. Our store focuses on education and we have many classes to help you learn about herbs, aromatherapy, nutrition, and self-care – focusing on safe information backed up by research and experience. We also offer wellness coaching and massage – stop in today! For more information, visit or email [email protected]

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