Are (my) herbs “legit”? How to gauge quality and potency of herbal medications.


So you’ve decided you want to buy a specific herbal supplement for a specific reason. Maybe you want some Aloe Vera or a big bag of bee pollen. Maybe you want some black cohosh root or some a dried mushroom of some sort. How do you know if the 1lb bag of “organic” “all natural” “GMO-free” powder you ordered is actually what it says it is? Knowing for sure is a big problem. In fact, recent studies show that many herbal products are oftentimes riddled with fillers or different plants alltogether (1). So, how do we get the herbs we need? A general rule is to use what I will call the three S’s: Senses, science, and supplier.


The most basic form of investigation is using your senses. What prior knowledge do you have about this product? Do you know what it’s supposed to look, smell, and feel like? Have you ordered it before? Do you have a small kitchen scale to check its weight to see if you actually received how much you ordered? Quantity is the first thing you can check. If the company got the weight right then you can investigate further into its characteristics. The scent should be similar to what you’ve ordered before. Some smells like ylang ylang, patchouli, and sandalwood are unmistakable. Maybe you know someone who is familiar with the herb already. If I’m ordering more popular supplements I try a few brands before I settle on one to guarantee I get the most seemingly potent one. As you might imagine though, your senses will only get you so far. This brings me to my next point:


 Most herbs are sold by recommendations and advice of their apparent effects. Very few whole herbs are confirmed for specific purposes by stringent scientific study. Try not to tune out for this brief description, it’s important! Modern day science investigates the effectiveness of something based on active ingredient. The active ingredients in many herbs have not been studied, though some have. Some are effective and some are not. The ones that are have peer-reviewed (that’s right, this is when other scientists in similar fields investigate each other’s work) studies to back them up. Once you know you are dealing with an herb with confirmed effectiveness, then you have to make sure the active ingredient is actually in the supplement you ordered. Enter a fancy process called Mass Spectrometry or mass spec for short (you may have heard this on some of your favorite TV shows). Mass spec confirms that an active ingredient is actually in an herbal supplement. Very few herbals companies actually do this- a list of the ones I’m familiar with is below. Which brings me to my next point:


 Which herbals companies are reputable? Do you simply google the product you’re looking for and buy what is the most affordable? Do you just go by your local herb shop? How do you know their herbs are “legit”? Large scale suppliers may have the cheapest variety of what you’re looking for but those products have come a long way. Many shops just buy their herbs wholesale overseas and hope what they’re selling is decent quality. As a general rule try to find domestic products and companies that mass spec their herbs.


Very few companies pass the 3 S’s. Try to find ones that grow their herbs in the US, show and cite their active ingredients (using Mass Spec), or at least use whole herb derivatives.

Happy herb hunting!

1) Newmaster, Steven G., Meghan Grguric, Dhivya Shanmughanandhan, Sathishkumar Ramalingam, and Subramanyam Ragupathy. “DNA Barcoding Detects Contamination and Substitution in North American Herbal Products.” BMC Medicine BMC Med 11.1 (2013): 222.

The Modern Medicine Man
Hey there! My name is Aaron Kampe and I am a lecturer and lab coordinator at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in the department of Biological Sciences. With degrees in biology and anthropology I have an intense interest in ethnobotanicals. I enjoy writing about the wide range of plant based medicines used by various cultures throughout history as well as modern medications that are originally derived from nature. I am also the principal herbalist for Elk Haven Herbals.