Skepticism

New Video! Study: Herbal Supplements are a Giant Ripoff

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Sort-of-transcript:

Do you take ginkgo biloba supplements to improve your brain function? If so, then first of all, you should probably stop because it’s not helping, according to the largest study ever conducted on the Chinese treatment back in 2009, which found absolutely no difference between gingko biloba and a placebo.

Also, don’t bother because even if it did help, the pills you buy at places like Walmart, Walgreens, and Target probably don’t even have gingko biloba in them, according to a recent investigation from the NY State Attorney General’s office. At Walmart, none of the supplements tested contained the pure ingredient listed on the container. Across the board, most of the supplements either had none of the one listed herb in it OR contained the herb alongside a bunch of other unlisted crap, including potential allergens like wheat.

The bitter irony, of course, is that if ginkgo biloba did improve your mental faculties and the pills did contain that herb, if you took enough you might be able to better realize when you’re being ripped off.

Alas…

You can hardly blame consumers, though, considering that this shit is sold in pharmacies like Walgreens, whose very existence is meant as a place to sell effective medicine, not unregulated crap that’s more likely to cause an allergic reaction than to actually help you in any substantial way.

A lot of people don’t realize that herbal supplements aren’t well-regulated in the US and in many other places, because they’re not considered real medicine. They’re only regulated in that if something goes horribly wrong, like that time the “homeopathic” nasal spray Zicam started robbing people of their sense of smell, the government will demand they be removed from the shelves. Other than that, so long as they don’t promise to actually cure any diseases, they can pretty much sell whatever they want, labeled however they want.

So if you want to improve brain function, don’t bother with the gingko biloba. Maybe pick up a book instead, like this one from my friend Simon Singh called Trick or Treatment, in which he gives a complete and very honest overview of the actual efficacy of various alternative medicine treatments and why we use clinical trials to determine what works and what doesn’t.

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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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2 Comments

  1. Steve Russell wrote an article on supplements having no active ingredients. I told him on his Facebook page that I didn’t know what he was talking about; supplements are safe* and effective*.

    *Statement not evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to cure, diagnose, prevent, or mitigate a disease.

  2. Rebecca Watson,

    I have to say, I’m very disappointed by this. My mom and I used to take Gingko Biloba a lot.

    My mom also insisted that I take that Zicam Nasal spray the last time I was sick. I knew it wouldn’t work since it said “homophatic” on it. However, I took it just make her happy. Now I wish I hadn’t since it might harmed my sense of smell. Next time I’m going to tell her no.

    I’m going to have to show her this video.

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