The Scoop - Fall 2020

Fall 2020

Thinking about taking a botanical dietary supplement?
Here's what you need to know.

About one in five U.S. adults takes botanical supplements, and sales of these products continue to grow. Like other dietary supplements, botanical supplements have not been shown to prevent or treat COVID-19, but do they have other health benefits? Are they safe? And how can you identify a quality product?

Many people have questions about botanical supplements, so we've provided some answers below. For more information, see our fact sheet on botanical dietary supplements, and talk with your healthcare provider for specific advice.

What are botanical supplements and how do they differ from other supplements like fish oil, probiotics, melatonin, and vitamin D?

The term "botanical" means "plant," so botanical supplements contain one or more parts of plants, like the roots of black cohosh or the flowers of echinacea. Botanical supplements, which are often called herbal supplements, are all classified as dietary supplements and they are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)external link disclaimer differently than over-the-counter or prescription medicines. Medicines must be approved by FDA before they can be sold or marketed, but dietary supplements do not require this approval.

What forms of botanicals are available?

Botanicals are sold in many forms as both fresh and dried plant materials. For example, a supermarket's produce aisle carries fresh ginger root. Dried ginger root may be found in the spice aisle or in the dietary supplement section in capsule or tablet form, in tea bags, or as a liquid preparation. One or more natural plant constituents may also be isolated from a botanical and sold in concentrated form as a dietary supplement, usually in a tablet or capsule. For example, phytoestrogens from soy products are sold as dietary supplements.

Do botanical supplements work and are they safe?

The amount of scientific evidence on the health effects of botanical supplements varies widely. Because botanical supplements do not require FDA pre-market approval, manufacturers do not have to prove to FDA that their products "work" before selling them. In addition, botanicals aren't necessarily safe just because they are "natural." The safety of a botanical depends on many things including its chemical makeup, how it is prepared, the amount used, and whether it is taken with other supplements.

Some botanicals, like St. John's wort, have been well studied, so scientists know a lot about their safety and effectiveness. Others, like cat's claw, have not. In addition, botanical supplements can interact with medications, so if you take any medications, check with your healthcare provider. See our dietary supplement fact sheets for more information about the safety and effectiveness of specific botanical supplements.

What does the term "standardized" mean on a product label?

Manufacturers of botanical supplements can identify and measure specific chemical constituents in their products, often called "markers," and adjust them to ensure consistent batches. This process is called standardization. However, the constituents responsible for the health effects of most botanicals are not known. In addition, the term "standardized" has no legal or regulatory definition in the United States. Therefore, products labeled as "standardized" aren't necessarily more effective, safe, or of higher quality than others.

How can I find high-quality botanical supplements?

Determining the quality of a botanical supplement can be difficult because quality depends on the manufacturer and the production process. Your healthcare provider might be able to recommend a specific brand.

A product's label doesn't necessarily indicate quality, but you can look for seals of quality assurance from several independent organizations that offer quality testing. These seals indicate that a product was properly manufactured, contains the ingredients listed on the label, and does not contain harmful levels of contaminants. These seals, however, do not guarantee that a product is safe or effective.

What's the bottom line?

Gather as much information as you can from reliable sources such as our dietary supplement fact sheets and talk with your healthcare provider for advice. If you decide to try a botanical supplement, follow the manufacturer's suggested directions for use and do not exceed the recommended dose unless your healthcare provider recommends otherwise. Always be alert to the possibility of a bad reaction. If you think that you had a bad reaction, tell your healthcare provider. You can also report your experience to FDA by calling 800-332-1088 or completing an online formexternal link disclaimer.

If you decide to take a botanical supplement, check out our fact sheets:

¿Habla español?

Consulte nuestra información basada en la ciencia para ayudarle a tomar las mejores decisiones para su salud con respecto al uso de suplementos dietéticos.

Have more questions about dietary supplements? Ask the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS).

ODS provides general information about dietary supplement ingredients in response to questions from consumers, health professionals, students, and others. While ODS cannot answer specific medical questions, make referrals, or give personal guidance on the use of dietary supplements, ODS's registered dietitians on staff reply to each inquiry and give useful, scientific, and evidence-based information. Send your questions about dietary supplements to ODS:

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About ODS

The Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the nation's medical research agency—supporting scientific studies that turn discovery into health.

Contact Us

Office of Dietary Supplements
National Institutes of Health
6100 Executive Boulevard, Room 3B01
Bethesda, MD 20892-7517

Email: [email protected]