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Adams, Chris: More Research Is Questioning Safety, Effectiveness of Herbs (WSJ, Aug. 28, 2002)

Letter sent to the Wall Street Journal in reference to the article by Chris Adams on Aug 28. No response has been made by The Wall Street Journal.

September 2, 2002

To the EditorWall Street Journal

Sent via email:

Dear Sir or Madam:

It is important to report on results of herbal research conducted by the NIH; it is equally necessary that results of such research be reported accurately. Mr. Adams misstates the conclusions of several clinical studies to support his highly erroneous statement that “research has found that half of the dozen top-selling herbal supplements are either useless for their marketed purposes or dangerous.”


He states that an echinacea study found the herb had “no significant effect on either the occurrence of infection or the severity of illness.” (quoting the study). True, but the study was designed to determine if echinacea could prevent a cold, not treat its symptoms. Numerous studies suggest that echinacea shortens duration and reduces severity of upper respiratory tract infections associated with colds and flus. Most echinacea users employ it for treatment, not prevention. Mr. Adams’ article totally ignores this important factor.

Regarding the ginkgo study just published in AMA’s journal, Mr. Adams should have emphasized that the study did not produce improved cognitive effects on normal healthy adults, whereas most ginkgo research strongly supports its safety and efficacy in treating cognitively impaired adults. This crucial point was minimized, along with totally ignoring the results of very similar study in July that showed benefit for ginkgo in healthy adults using a dosage only 50 percent higher than the one in the JAMA study.

He mischaracterizes the results of a recent NIH study on St. John's wort, saying that it “is no better at treating major depression than a sugar pill” without noting that the popular prescription antidepressant drug Zoloft did equally as poorly in the same trial, and that many experts in this area do not consider this research conclusive about the herb’s documented antidepressant benefits.

Finally, he misstates the results of preliminary research on garlic and anti-HIV drugs, writing that garlic “could cause harmful side effects in people undergoing HIV therapy.” In fact, this small, uncontrolled, controversial study tested interactions of garlic and saquinavir in healthy men, but the study’s implications are too tentative to be clinically relevant. Hardly sufficient data to dismiss garlic’s safety and potential benefits.

There is already too much confusion about the safety and benefits of herbs. This article’s misinformation does not serve the health and welfare of WSJ readers or the public who might benefit from properly-manufactured, safe, beneficial, and relatively low-cost herbal supplements.


Mark BlumenthalFounder and Executive Director, American Botanical Council, Austin, TexasEditor, HerbalGramAdjunct Associate Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, College of Pharmacy, University of Texas at Austin

Norman R. Farnsworth, Ph.D.Research Professor of Pharmacognosy and Director, WHO Program for Collaborative Research in the Pharmaceutical SciencesCollege of Pharmacy, University of Illinois at ChicagoCo-editor, Phytomedicine