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NIH Office of Dietary Supplements

Botanical Dietary Supplements

Background Information

What is a botanical?

A botanical is a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal or therapeutic properties, flavor, and/or scent. Herbs are a subset of botanicals. Products made from botanicals that are used to maintain or improve health may be called herbal products, botanical products, or phytomedicines.

In naming botanicals, botanists use a Latin name made up of the genus and species of the plant. Under this system the botanical black cohosh is known as Actaea racemosa L., where "L" stands for Linneaus, who first described the type of plant specimen. In the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) fact sheets, we do not include such initials because they do not appear on most products used by consumers.

Can botanicals be dietary supplements?

To be classified as a dietary supplement, a botanical must meet the definition given below. Many botanical preparations meet the definition.

As defined by Congress in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Actexternal link icon, which became law in 1994, a dietary supplement is a product (other than tobacco) that

  • is intended to supplement the diet;
  • contains one or more dietary ingredients (including vitamins; minerals; herbs or other botanicals; amino acids; and other substances) or their constituents;
  • is intended to be taken by mouth as a pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid; and
  • is labeled on the front panel as being a dietary supplement.

How are botanicals commonly sold and prepared?

Botanicals are sold in many forms: as fresh or dried products; liquid or solid extracts; tablets, capsules, powders; tea bags; and other forms. For example, fresh ginger root is often found in the produce section of food stores; dried ginger root is sold packaged in tea bags, capsules, or tablets; and liquid preparations made from ginger root are also sold. A particular group of chemicals or a single chemical may be isolated from a botanical and sold as a dietary supplement, usually in tablet or capsule form. An example is phytoestrogens from soy products.

Common preparations include teas, decoctions, tinctures, and extracts:

  • A tea, also known as an infusion, is made by adding boiling water to fresh or dried botanicals and steeping them. The tea may be drunk either hot or cold.
  • Some roots, bark, and berries require more forceful treatment to extract their desired ingredients. They are simmered in boiling water for longer periods than teas, making a decoction, which also may be drunk hot or cold.
  • A tincture is made by soaking a botanical in a solution of alcohol and water. Tinctures are sold as liquids and are used for concentrating and preserving a botanical. They are made in different strengths that are expressed as botanical-to-extract ratios (i.e., ratios of the weight of the dried botanical to the volume or weight of the finished product).
  • An extract is made by soaking the botanical in a liquid that removes specific types of chemicals. The liquid can be used as is or evaporated to make a dry extract for use in capsules or tablets.

Are botanical dietary supplements standardized?

Standardization is a process that manufacturers may use to ensure batch-to-batch consistency of their products. In some cases, standardization involves identifying specific chemicals (also known as markers) that can be used to manufacture a consistent product. The standardization process can also provide a measure of quality control.

Dietary supplements are not required to be standardized in the United States. In fact, no legal or regulatory definition exists for standardization in the United States as it applies to botanical dietary supplements. Because of this, the term "standardization" may mean many different things. Some manufacturers use the term standardization incorrectly to refer to uniform manufacturing practices; following a recipe is not sufficient for a product to be called standardized. Therefore, the presence of the word "standardized" on a supplement label does not necessarily indicate product quality.

Ideally, the chemical markers chosen for standardization would also be the constituents that are responsible for a botanical's effect in the body. In this way, each lot of the product would have a consistent health effect. However, the components responsible for the effects of most botanicals have not been identified or clearly defined. For example, the sennosides in the botanical senna are known to be responsible for the laxative effect of the plant, but many compounds may be responsible for valerian's relaxing effect.

Are botanical dietary supplements safe?

Many people believe that products labeled "natural" are safe and good for them. This is not necessarily true because the safety of a botanical depends on many things, such as its chemical makeup, how it works in the body, how it is prepared, and the dose used.

The action of botanicals range from mild to powerful (potent). A botanical with mild action may have subtle effects. Chamomile and peppermint, both mild botanicals, are usually taken as teas to aid digestion and are generally considered safe for self-administration. Some mild botanicals may have to be taken for weeks or months before their full effects are achieved. For example, valerian may be effective as a sleep aid after 14 days of use but it is rarely effective after just one dose. In contrast a powerful botanical produces a fast result. Kava, as one example, is reported to have an immediate and powerful action affecting anxiety and muscle relaxation.

The dose and form of a botanical preparation also play important roles in its safety. Teas, tinctures, and extracts have different strengths. The same amount of a botanical may be contained in a cup of tea, a few teaspoons of tincture, or an even smaller quantity of an extract. Also, different preparations vary in the relative amounts and concentrations of chemical removed from the whole botanical. For example, peppermint tea is generally considered safe to drink but peppermint oil is much more concentrated and can be toxic if used incorrectly. It is important to follow the manufacturer's suggested directions for using a botanical and not exceed the recommended dose without the advice of a health care provider.

Does a label indicate the quality of a botanical dietary supplement product?

It is difficult to determine the quality of a botanical dietary supplement product from its label. The degree of quality control depends on the manufacturer, the supplier, and others in the production process.

In 2007, the FDA issued Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) for dietary supplements, a set of requirements and expectations by which dietary supplements must be manufactured, prepared, and stored to ensure quality. Manufacturers are now expected to guarantee the identity, purity, strength, and composition of their dietary supplements. For example, the GMPs aim to prevent the inclusion of the wrong ingredients, the addition of too much or too little of a dietary ingredient, the possibility of contamination (by pesticides, heavy metals such as lead, bacteria, etc.), and the improper packaging and labeling of a product.

What methods are used to evaluate the health benefits and safety of a botanical dietary supplement?

Like other dietary supplements, botanicals are not required by federal law to be tested for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed, so the amount of scientific evidence available for various botanical ingredients varies widely. Some botanicals have been evaluated in scientific studies. For example, research shows that St. John's wort may be useful for short-term treatment of mild to moderate depression. Other botanical dietary supplements need more study to determine their value.

Scientists can use several approaches to evaluate botanical dietary supplements for their potential health benefits and risks. They may investigate history of use, conduct laboratory studies using cell or tissue cultures, and experiment with animals. Studies on people (e.g., individual case reports, observational studies, and clinical trials) provide the most direct evidence of a botanical supplement's effects on health and patterns of use.

What are some additional sources of information on botanical dietary supplements?

Medical libraries are one source of information about botanical dietary supplements. Others include Web-based resources such as PubMed and FDAexternal link icon. For general information about dietary supplements see Dietary Supplements: Background Information from the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS).

Disclaimer

This fact sheet by the Office of Dietary Supplements provides information that should not take the place of medical advice. We encourage you to talk to your healthcare providers (doctor, registered dietitian, pharmacist, etc.) about your interest in, questions about, or use of dietary supplements and what may be best for your overall health. Any mention in this publication of a specific brand name is not an endorsement of the product.

Glossary

administration
The process of giving a person a medicine or dietary supplement by mouth, by vein, on the skin, or by another route. For example, a 14-day administration of valerian extract.
amino acid
A chemical building block of protein.
animal study
A laboratory test using animals to study the development and course of human diseases, and to test the safety and effectiveness of new treatments before they are given to humans.
black cohosh
A plant whose rhizome and root are used to relieve hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause. It is not known how black cohosh works or whether it acts like estrogen (a hormone needed to develop and maintain female sex characteristics and the growth of long bones). Historically, black cohosh has been used to treat many medical conditions. Also called black snakeroot, bugbane, bugwort, rattleroot, rattletop, rattleweed, and macrotys. Latin names: Actaea racemosa and Cimicifuga racemosa.
botanical
Having to do with plants or plant parts, or dietary supplement products made from plants.
botanist
A scientist who studies the biology of plants.
capsule
A gelatin shell containing a dose of medicine, a vitamin, or other dietary supplement.
cell
The individual unit that makes up the tissues of the body. All living things are made up of one or more cells, which are the smallest units of living structure capable of independent existence.
chamomile
The flower of this herb is used in some cultures for its calming effect, to promote sleep, and as a treatment for indigestion. It is being studied in relieving chronic pain in children with bowel disorders. Latin names: Matricaria recutita and Anthemis nobilis.
clinical trial
A type of research study that uses volunteers to test the safety and efficacy (the ability to produce a beneficial effect) of new methods of screening (checking for disease when there are no symptoms), prevention, diagnosis, or treatment of a disease. Also called a clinical study.
compound
In pharmacy, a substance that contains more than one ingredient.
constituent
A component, part, or ingredient of a larger whole. For example, valerenic acid and valepotriate are constituents of the dietary supplement valerian.
data
Facts and information.
decoction
A substance made by simmering some types of roots, bark, and berries in water to extract their desired ingredients. It is simmered for a longer time than that needed to make tea and may be drunk hot or cold.
dietary supplement
A product that is intended to supplement the diet. A dietary supplement contains one or more dietary ingredients (including vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, and other substances) or their components; is intended to be taken by mouth as a pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid; and is identified on the front label of the product as being a dietary supplement.
digestion
The process the body uses to break down food into simple substances for energy, growth, and cell repair.
dose
The amount of medicine or other substance taken at one time or over a specific period of time.
drug
Any substance (other than food) that is used to prevent, diagnose, treat, or relieve symptoms of a disease or abnormal condition. Also, a substance that alters mood or body function or that can be habit-forming or addictive, especially a narcotic.
extract
A substance made by soaking an herb in a liquid that removes specific types of chemicals. The liquid can be used as is or evaporated to make a concentrate or a dry extract for use in capsules or tablets.
genus
The name of a category that is part of the scientific classification of all organisms. Genus is located in the classification system after kingdom, phylum, class, order, and family and before the subclassification of species. Humans, for example, belong to the genus Homo and the species Homo sapiens.
ginger
The root of this plant has been used in cooking and in some cultures to treat nausea, vomiting, and certain other medical conditions. It is being studied in the treatment of nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy. Latin name: Zingiber officianale.
health care provider
A person who supplies health care services. Health care providers include individuals with professional training (including doctors, nurses, technicians, and aides).
herb
A plant used in cooking, in tea, and for medicinal purposes.
herbal
Having to do with or made from medicinal or edible plants.
kava
The root of this plant has been used in traditional medicine to relieve stress, anxiety, tension, sleeplessness, and problems of menopause. The US Food and Drug Administration advises users that products containing kava may cause severe liver damage. Also called kava kava, intoxicating pepper, rauschpfeffer, tonga, and yangona. Latin name: Piper methysticum.
label
When referring to dietary supplements, information that appears on the product container, including a descriptive name of the product stating that it is a "supplement"; the name and place of business of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor; a complete list of ingredients; and each dietary ingredient contained in the product. Supplements must also include directions for use, nutrition labeling in the form of a Supplement Facts panel that identifies each dietary ingredient contained in the product and the serving size, amount, and active ingredients.
laboratory study
Research done in a laboratory. A laboratory study may use cells in test tubes or animals to find out if a drug, procedure, or other treatment is likely to be safe and useful. Laboratory studies usually take place before any testing is done in humans.
laxative
A substance that moves the bowels and relieves constipation.
lot
A batch, or a specific identified portion of a batch, having uniform character and quality within specified limits; or, an amount produced in a unit of time or quantity.
medicinal
Having to do with the abilities of medicine to prevent and cure.
meta-analysis
A methodical review of the results of multiple research studies. In a meta-analysis, statistical methods are used to measure the combined results of these studies and estimate an overall effect.
mineral
In nutrition, an inorganic substance found in the earth that is required to maintain health.
peppermint
A plant that has been used in traditional medicine in many parts of the world to relieve indigestion, cough, sore throat, headache, abdominal cramping, and gas. Also called brandy mint, lamb mint, and lammint. Latin name: Mentha piperita.
phytoestrogen
A weak estrogen-like substance found in some plants and plant products. Isoflavones, a type of phytoestrogen, are being studied in the prevention of osteoporosis, menopausal symptoms, and some types of cancer. Soybeans are a rich source of phytoestrogens.
phytomedicine
The use of herbs and other plants to treat disease. Also called phytotherapy.
preparation
A mixture made for medicinal use.
quality control
A system to ensure that consistency and uniformity are maintained in the manufacturing of a product.
rigorous
Accurate, precise, and without deviation from standards.
risk
The chance or probability that a harmful event will occur. In health, for example, the chance that someone will develop a disease or condition.
senna
A plant used in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine. The leaves are used to make a stimulant laxative that increases the frequency of bowel movements and relieves constipation. It is widely used in over-the-counter laxatives. Latin name: Senna alexandrina.
sennoside
The active ingredient in senna, a plant whose leaves are used to make a stimulant laxative that increases the frequency of bowel movements and relieves constipation.
solution
A liquid in which another substance has been dissolved or mixed.
soy
A plant that produces beans used in many food products. Soy products contain isoflavones (estrogen-like substances) that are being studied in the prevention of cancer, hot flashes that occur with menopause, and osteoporosis (loss of bone density). Also called soya and soybean. Latin name: Glycine max.
species
The name of a category that is part of the scientific classification of all organisms. The category species is located in the classification system after kingdom, phylum, class, order, family and genus. Humans, for example, belong to the genus Homo and the species Homo sapiens.
standardization
A process manufacturers may use to ensure batch-to-batch consistency of their products and to provide a measure of quality control. Dietary supplements are not required to be standardized in the United States. Some manufacturers use the term incorrectly or to mean different things and the presence of the word "standardized" on a supplement label does not necessarily indicate a level of product quality.
supplement
A nutrient that may be added to the diet to increase the intake of that nutrient. Sometimes used to mean dietary supplement.
systematic review
A structured method of identifying, selecting, and analyzing appropriate research to answer a specific question.
tea
A drink made by adding boiling water to fresh or dried herbs and steeping (soaking) them. It may be drunk either hot or cold. Also called an infusion.
therapeutic
Used to treat disease and help healing take place.
tincture
A liquid made by soaking an herb in a solution of alcohol and water. It is used for concentrating and preserving an herb and may be made in different strengths that are expressed as ratios of the weight of the dried herb to the volume or weight of the finished product.
toxic
Having to do with poison or something harmful to the body. Toxic substances usually cause unwanted health effects.
uniformity
The quality of being consistently the same and not varying or fluctuating in color, size, weight, composition, or any other physical feature.
valerian
The roots of this plant are used by some cultures as an ingredient in mild sedatives and sleep aids for nervous tension and insomnia. It is being studied in improving sleep in patients undergoing treatment for cancer. Latin name: Valeriana officinalis.
vitamin
A nutrient that the body needs in small amounts to function and maintain health. Examples are vitamins A, C, and E.
volume
The amount of space taken up by a substance; the amount of space a container can hold.

Reviewed: June 24, 2011