Article #9: Natural Foods by Patrick Malone
They Refer to them as 'Healthy,' But some are Actually Hazardous
Some natural foods that are supposed to make you healthy could instead send you to the hospital, medical researchers are discovering.
Scientists browsing through health food stores across the country are finding a cornucopia of unsafe—even illegal —herbs, barks, roots, seeds and other substances plucked from nature.
"This idea of just going and eating plant extracts is very bad," says Dr. Joseph Davis, chief medical examiner of Dade County. "There is a whole host of problems."
New clinical reports of deaths and serious illness are forcing a second look at suddenly hip herbal teas, tonics and folk nostrums. Hospitals have reported health food victims from New York to Colorado.
Plants as common as alfalfa and as exotic as devil's claw root, as harmless as parsley and as dangerous as apricot kernels are sold in health food stores with no warnings about their potential side-effects.
Vomiting, diarrhea, muscular weakness, hallucinations, rashes, severe allergic reactions, high blood pressure and death—all have been linked in recent medical journal reports to medicinal herbs found on health food store shelves.
Based on her 15 years of researching herbal teas from South America to South Carolina, Dr. Julia Morton of the University of Miami is convinced that cancer of the esophagus can be caused by drinking too many beverages rich in mouth-puckering tannin.
That includes teas as unusual as bayberry and as common as Lipton, as well as dry red wine. The tannin-cancer link remains controversial.
Not so with some other products, whose dangers are as unimpeachable as their naturalness.
State and federal agencies charged with protecting the public from hazardous foods and drugs admit they can't keep them all off store shelves.
"There are lots and lots of things out there that shouldn't be there," says Joseph Perret, a consumer safety officer at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Apricot kernels — Rich in Laetrile, apricot kernels are considered illegal by the FDA when sold in health food stores. The FDA has seized tons of the kernels, which have killed at least three Americans by cyanide poisoning.
Mistletoe tea — Reputed in ancient times to be a remedy for epilepsy, mistletoe contains a poison similar to cobra venom. Children have died from eating mistletoe berries. So have mice sipping mistletoe tea in a university laboratory. The FDA seized a shipment of mistletoe tea two years ago as unsafe.
Pokeweed root — Sold as a powder in health food stores, touted for a variety of medicinal uses pokeroot also has killed children. The poison it contains also can cause diminished breathing and an inflamed digestive tract.
Sassafras bark and calamus — Both banned by the FDA in foods, they are known to contain cancer-causing chemicals. They can be bought in health food stores or ordered by mail from one of the country's eight major herb wholesalers, such as Green Mountain Herbs of Boulder, Colorado.
Other health food items are legal because scientific research about their benefits or harms is scanty. Still others are safe if used properly, but food regulations forbid labeling that gives any food a medicinal ring.
Sometimes the distinction between a food and a drug is invisible. That has enabled a substance like apricot kernels to slip through the holes in the regulatory net.
It is true with other plant products as well. As long as something is sold with no advice on how it can help or harm medically, it is legally a food.
The irony for the fledgling herbal industry rests on this thin legalistic line between food and drug. The word "drug" itself comes from a German word meaning "to dry," as in drying plants.
"We're in a twilight zone," says Mark Blumenthal, head of Sweetheart Herbs of Austin, Texas, and president of the Herbal Trade Association. Blumenthal, a 32-year-old vegetarian, started with a partner selling ginseng root out of a car trunk five years ago and now runs a $1 million annual business.
Reclassifying medicinal herbs as prescription drugs would ruin the herbal industry, insist suppliers such as Blumenthal. At last estimate of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, a new substance requires $50 million and nine years to reach pharmacies as a drug.
In its own defense, the herbal industry will ask the FDA to set toxicity standards and organize a research program to gather scientific knowledge about medicinal plants forgotten since the rise of the modern drug industry.
Already, industry researchers have scoured thousands of chemical and botanical journals to cull what little is known about the hundreds of herbs now sold.
Soon the Herbal Trade Association will issue its first policy statement against one of its products, pokeweed root, advising that it not be taken internally.
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