St. John's wort scrutinized for potency claims

September 27, 1998|By Terence Monmaney | Terence Monmaney,LOS ANGELES TIMES

It is the fastest-growing "alternative" in a nation increasingly enchanted with unconventional and unproven treatments. A million or more Americans have lately tried St. John's wort, an herbal remedy for depression with 1998 retail sales estimated at $400 million - up 3,900 percent since 1995.

Already the leading antidepressant in Germany, where clinical studies have suggested it can ease mild or moderate depression, it cannonballed onto the American self-help scene last year after being hailed as "nature's Prozac."

But independent laboratory tests commissioned by the Los Angeles Times raise questions about whether consumers are getting what they pay for. Three of the 10 brands of St. John's wort tested - including a brand from the nation's leading supplement distributor - had no more than about half the potency listed on the label. Four more had less than 90 percent of the indicated potency.

This suggests that Americans are buying products that do not live up to their claims, health experts say. Moreover, depressed people may be laying hopes on products too weak to help.

"How is it possible to appropriately regulate a treatment regimen if you can't even be sure of the dosage?" said Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a research psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health and a believer in St. John's wort's mood-elevating properties.

One source of concern is that, unlike pharmaceutical drugs, herbal supplements do not undergo government scrutiny before marketing.

The Food and Drug Administration can seize dietary supplements that turn out to be harmful, fraudulent or improperly promoted. But lax premarket government oversight means consumers have less quality assurance than they expect of medications, said Sally Guthrie, a University of Michigan pharmacy professor.

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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