Group Denounces Herbal Food

Wednesday, July 19th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Consumers are being bilked, and maybe endangered, by dozens of foods spiked with herbal medicines that falsely claim to do such things as boost brain power or fight infections, consumer advocates charged.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest joined with Connecticut's attorney general and a renowned herbal expert to petition the Food and Drug Administration to halt sales of 75 so-called functional foods.

``The FDA has done a woefully inadequate job of protecting consumers,'' CSPI attorney Bruce Silverglade said Tuesday, displaying what he called ``modern-day snake oils:'' snack chips spiked with echinacea and fruit drinks laced with kava kava and ginkgo, all claiming miraculous-sounding health benefits.

``There is no scientific evidence to support these outlandish and ridiculous claims,'' said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who is investigating the foods and said he soon will announce a crackdown on deceptive products sold in Connecticut.

``State action will be forthcoming if the federal government can't do better'' at preventing manufacturers from ``betraying consumers,'' Blumenthal added, saying he is asking attorneys general in other states to investigate, too.

Functional foods claim to have added ingredients that provide an extra nutrition boost, and some are very healthy, such as orange juice pumped up with bone-strengthening calcium. Other examples are cereals containing heart-healthy fiber, and FDA-approved margarines that contain cholesterol-lowering ingredients.

But the latest fad takes this concept a step further: adding unproven and largely unregulated herbal dietary supplements to foods.

``Herbs are drugs,'' said Varro Tyler, a professor emeritus at Purdue University and an internationally known herbal expert.

``We do not add Viagra to soup. We do not spray Prozac on corn chips,'' Tyler said, yet numerous companies claim to add herbs strong enough to affect health to foods eaten daily by children, pregnant women and others who could be at risk.

If the herb doses really are strong enough to affect health, that ``is a disaster waiting to happen,'' he said. If the doses aren't that strong, then the foods are safe but deceptive.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America defended the $16 billion functional food industry, accusing the consumer advocates of ``frenzied overreaction.'' The FDA properly regulates foods and brand-name manufacturers only sell safe products, the industry group insisted.

But a General Accounting Office report to Congress last week echoed the state-level concern, calling the FDA's efforts inadequate to ensure consumer safety.

FDA's food chief refused comment Tuesday. But the agency has contended that it does not have enough money to crack down on overall functional foods and instead investigates them case-by-case.

Among CSPI's complaints:

—GinkgO's brand cereal promises ``sharp thinking,'' as does Arizona's Rx Memory Elixir tea, because they contain the herb ginkgo, alleged to improve blood flow in the brain. But ginkgo is not proven to help memory. Plus, it thins people's blood, leading doctors to warn that anyone using regular aspirin or other blood thinners could risk a stroke if they also consume ginkgo.

—Snapple's Moon Tea, Apple & Eve's Tribal Tonics Relaxation Cocktail and Hansen's ``d-stress'' sparkling drink contain kava kava, an herb Tyler called a potent muscle relaxant and sedative. People in California and Utah have been charged with driving while intoxicated while under kava's sedative effects, CSPI said.

—Robert's American Gourmet Echinacea Shells snack claims that ``echinacea facilitates the healing process and ... can be an effective antibiotic.'' The FDA warned Robert's last January that the antibiotic claim — which scientists say is completely unproven — was a federal violation. Plus, Tyler said echinacea can cause allergic reactions, particularly in ragweed-allergy sufferers.


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