Have you ever wondered why labels on supplements are so vague?

Mental health researchers Dr. Julia Rucklidge and Dr. Bonnie Kaplan recently wrote an article on the vagueness we often see on the labels from natural supplement bottles.

For example, consider St. John’s Wort, which the researchers expound on:

There is solid empirical evidence showing that St John’s Wort can be used to treat mild to moderate depression(1) and is as good as antidepressants with fewer side effects. However, if one goes into a health food store to look at how it is labelled, in NZ it is sold as a mood enhancer, or a mood supporter. The label cannot be accurate about the extent of scientific studies supporting its use because that would make it a medicine and then it could not be sold over-the-counter.

According to the researchers, natural product manufacturers are left with two choices: register their products as medicine (which restricts it to prescriptions) or sell it over the counter but label claims have to be for a small list of conditions and can’t use the word “treat” or “cure”.

Those who support the status quo often cite safety concerns, but as the researchers point out, this may be a misguided argument:

For example, in the US alone, it has been estimated that 128,000 hospitalized patients die annually from serious adverse reactions to drugs which had been responsibly prescribed by a doctor. Including deaths from outside hospitals would significantly increase these numbers. In contrast, based on the 2014 Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control, no man, woman or child died from any nutritional supplement.

The larger point, it seems, is that the reason why supplement labels are vague is because legislation requires it.

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