Natural health products in Canada: buyer beware

Copyright All rights reserved by Free 2 Be

Copyright All rights reserved by Free 2 Be

It’s buyer beware when it comes to natural health products in Canada. According to new research conducted at the University of Guelph, the majority of herbal products on the market contain ingredients not listed on the label, with most companies substituting cheaper alternatives and using fillers.  The scientists used new technology  – DNA barcoding to identify and confirm ingredients in the products.

The researchers tested 44 herbal products sold by 12 companies. And would you believe that only two of the companies  provided authentic products without substitutions, contaminants or fillers?

That’s right- two out of twelve.

They also found that  almost 60 per cent of the herbal products contained plant species not listed on the label. In addition,  the researchers detected product substitution in 32 per cent of the samples.

So what were the fillers?  More than 20 per cent of the products included fillers such as rice, soybeans and wheat not listed on the label.

So much for the new allergen labelling laws which are supposed to protect people with serious allergies or those who require gluten-free diets.

But there was risk for others as well.  Some products contained contaminants  from plants  with known toxicity and  side effects. Some may even  interact with other herbs, supplements and medications.

Examples of mislabelling include:

•    A product labelled as St. John’s wort contained Senna alexandrina, a plant with laxative properties.  Prolonged use may cause  chronic diarrhea and liver damage.

•    One ginkgo product was contaminated with black walnut, posing a very serious threat to anyone with nut allergies.

If this comes as a surprise to you, you might want to know about how natural health products in Canada are regulated.

It’s called self-regulation.

Yeah, right.

Years ago, Health Canada used to randomly test natural health products  for purity, and  also to assess the contents to ensure that what’s on the label is actually in the product.   That was before the days of the Natural Health Products Directorate (NHPD), the division of Health Canada responsible for regulating these products.

Now, a company producing a product must show proof of the contents only when it initially enters the market. After that, it’s up to the company to ensure both the purity and the validity of the label. No more testing is done by the government unless there are complaints.

This so-called self-regulation may be why the independent U.S., a group which tests and evaluates nutritional supplements and herbs, found that one Canadian probiotic supplement contained  only 13 per cent of the amount claimed on the label as of the “time of manufacture.”

Tod Cooperman, M.D., president of, which is considered to be the foremost provider of  this type of  information to help consumers and healthcare professionals, states, “While a company may argue that the label is no promise as to what to expect at the time the product is purchased, neither we nor the U.S. FDA allow that type of weaselling.” In other words, in the U.S., a product must contain the amount of probiotic it lists.

That’s not the situation in Canada. If the company is supposed to test their own products, are they going to halt the sale of those that don’t measure up?

Not likely.

Now, with the NHPD, Canadians are at the mercy of the manufacturer to make sure about supplement contents, such as contaminant levels in products like cod liver oil or any others just like those tested by the University of Guelph. Health Canada will act upon complaints, but is the average person going to know what’s in that bottle in order to do so?

We’ve had an overhaul at Health Canada with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency now coming under the same boss as Health Canada. This new research from the University of Guelph points to the need for even more of an overhaul in this government department.

Don’t Canadians deserve this?


Do you think there should be greater regulation of these products? Please share in the comment section below.

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Categories: Food Safety, Rosie's Rants

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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12 Comments on “Natural health products in Canada: buyer beware”

  1. Anne Vanderheide
    October 17, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

    Yes, there should be a regulation on herbal products. What are the 2 good companies to buy herbs from?

    • October 18, 2013 at 7:29 am #

      Sorry, Anne. The researchers didn’t release the names of the two out of twelve companies that were the only ones to put what was on the label in the bottle. It’s a sad state of affairs!

    • J Humphrey
      October 19, 2013 at 8:24 am #

      Anne, assuming you’re talking about the supplements, there’s no evidence to back up any of the health claims, anyway. It’s simply clever marketing combined with the false, pop-culture belief that all-natural is better… Unless properly conducted medical testing shows one is lacking a certain vitamin/nutrient etc., supplementation is absolutely unnecessary. Just a regular balanced diet is all that is needed. Loading up on extra vitamins etc doesn’t make one healthier than healthy. In fact, mega-dosing increases the risk of cancer, and poses other health risks, regardless of this particular issue with proper labeling and listing of ingredients.

  2. October 19, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

    What about the ones that are used in needles? I have to take B12 needles? those are regulated right? This is kinda scary, some people rely on vitamins for their lives!

    • J Humphrey
      October 19, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

      Herbal products vary widely. Some are specifically vitamin supplements, and then there’s a slew of other concoctions that are sold as cure-alls/prevent-alls. These, along with anything labeled ‘all-natural’, are typically over-priced and a waste of money, at best. Improperly tested, or not tested at all. More importantly, and a big ‘red flag’, is anecdotes/personal testimonials. Whenever anyone sells any health product, citing these as ‘proof’ their products work, you’re best to run the other away.

      Regarding vitamin supplementation specifically, you say you “have to take B12 needles”. If this is to say that you’ve undergone properly conducted tests, arranged by your ‘medical’ doctor (not an alternative-med doctor), then you’re in good hands…

      You have very little to worry about, so long as you are not purchasing your health products online, or at a healthfood store. These folks are not doctors, nor are they expertly trained in anything relating to biology/chemistry etc., etc..

      Unfortunately, even some drugstores are stocking/selling some questionable products, so it’s always good to consult your physician.

    • J Humphrey
      October 19, 2013 at 5:04 pm #

      Veronica, I know I provided more info than you’d asked for, lol. It was simply to provide a bigger picture.

      The short answer is, yes, if you’re taking a B12 shot prescribed by your medical doctor, these products are regulated.

      The ones who ‘should be’ concerned are those whose distrust in science-based medicine has led them to put their faith in all-natural/herbal products. And, sadly, there are millions mega-dosing on these products. Of course, this goes for those who take high doses of regular vitamin supplements without having had medical tests done to establish deficiency…

      Pretty scary when you consider this has become a multi-billion dollar industry.

    • J Humphrey
      October 19, 2013 at 8:48 pm #

      Well, this is pretty timely. ‘Just checked my inbox, and received this.

      Veronica, I thought I knew quite a bit about this, but this really filled in the gaps…, everything from A-Z, including about the regulations. Not too long (about 5 or so min’s I think), and easily digestible

      When you open this link, Ep. #431 should be right there at the top (podcast, recorded today).

      There are other topics discussed in this one podcast, also, and kinda sucks that there’s no counter to establish how far in… However, you’ll see, immediately below the player, “download”. FF to just a hair past the 2nd ‘d’ of ‘download’…

      Brilliantly presented. Enjoy.

    • October 20, 2013 at 12:59 am #

      Veronica, no worries here as injectable vitamins are regulated differently. But when you say scary as people rely on these products, this is how I feel about how the natural health industry is regulated.

  3. J Humphrey
    October 19, 2013 at 10:10 pm #

    For anyone else who wishes gain a thorough understanding…

    Once you click on the link (below), Ep. #431 should be right there at the top (podcast, recorded today).

    There are other topics discussed in this one (separately, of course), and there’s no counter to establish how far in… However, immediately below the player is, “download”. FF to just a hair past the 2nd ‘d’ of ‘download’, and you’re on the ‘Herbal Supplements’ segment.

    Not too long (about 5 or so min’s, I think), and quite fascinating. Very important info for anyone who takes herbal supplements, and especially for those who’re also on prescription meds.

    Not a pleasant state of affairs when you consider this is a multi-billion dollar industry. That’s a significant number of consumers. And yes, not just because of the fillers are people with allergies being harmed, others have fried their livers and/or kidneys due to other contaminants, [enough that a couple doses of the supplement itself are enough to reach the toxic dosage of certain contaminants].

    Unfortunately, because you can’t pigeonhole this industry into a certain category, such as drugs/medicine (beautifully explained), it’s up to the believers/consumers to raise a stink, and make demands…

    Essentially, the consumers/believers are partly responsibility for this. If I’m correct, it was about 5 or so years ago that the possibility of government regulation was being reported in the news… Businesses in the ‘all-natural’ (for want of…) industry certainly didn’t want this, and neither did the consumers of these products.

    The reason I recall this, is because, much like others who bought into the all-natural fallacy, my wife and I were getting into this stuff, largely because we were believing all we were told by others, along with naturopaths etc., who also happened to believe/promote, to some degree, the Big Pharma conspiracy and all that that entails.

    Can’t blame Health Canada on this one, folks. Our opinions carry weight, regardless of how uninformed, and when the lay public take hold of a health/scientific subject, and make it political, all objectivity goes out the window, and no one wants to hear what ‘science’ says about the health/safety concerns etc., because, well, even science is corrupt, as the conspiracy story goes.

    The last few paragraphs are simply my take; not mentioned in the episode.


  4. October 25, 2013 at 8:37 am #

    Thanks for your comments, J Humphrey. I agree with much of what you say but not all. For example, I do believe that low vitamin D levels are responsible for a wide assortment of ills. There are other examples of benefit as well – folic acid supplements prior to conception or vitamin B12 for the elderly.

    But I agree that we need to keep the definition of supplement in mind – they may be an addition to a healthy diet, not a replacement.

    • J Humphrey
      October 25, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

      Absolutely, Rosie Schwartz. Perhaps I wasn’t clear, but, of course, provided a licensed medical doctor/facility is conducting the necessary tests in order to establish a deficiency, this would be an exception.

      Supplements are certainly useful and necessary under these circumstances. However, without proper tests, and especially if one self-diagnosing, they’re pretty much assured to be wrong…

      The problem is, today, far too many buy into the idea that one CAN self-diagnose, hence vitamin mega-dosing being very common. Unfortunately, one is doing more harm and no good when taking more than what the body needs, long term of course, and depending how much extra.

      Certainly, the average person with a clean bill of health does not need to supplement.

  5. October 25, 2013 at 8:41 am #

    I would like to bring up a point about commenting. Please read the section about the guidelines for commenting Thanks!

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