Q How sustainable are some of the herbs and supplements I get from the health store?
A We love natural medicine and the fact that it encourages us to heal ourselves with earth-given things. But as I've no doubt said before, just because something comes from the earth doesn't mean we took it in a friendly way.
Take North American ginseng, for instance. Lots of us pop it to liven our step, quicken our minds and boost our immune systems. But the popular indigenous root is now scarce thanks to overharvesting. The demand for wild American ginseng has even led some to plant the stuff in forests just to make it look wild. The root's now on Canada's endangered species list. But as you can imagine, policing forests for ginseng poachers can be difficult and is not exactly a high priority.
Ginseng isn't the only herb becoming scarce. Wild echinacea is endangered in the U.S. Calming lady's slipper is on the list both north and south of the border. Sore throat soother licorice root is down by 60 per cent. And goldenseal, a popular anti-viral, is on the official threatened list here in Canada.
Indeed, according to the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, of the estimated 40,000 to 50,000 plants used in traditional and modern medicines around the world, the majority are snagged from the wild. Some herb companies insist that they practise ethical wild-crafting, but it's important to avoid buying any wild herb on the endangered or threatened list (for a full list of species at risk see www.sararegistry.gc.ca). The organic label guarantees your meds were harvested sustainably and grown without toxic inputs.
Health Canada's Health Product and Food Branch maintains that all manufacturers have to prove that pesticide levels aren't above a set standard. Of course, just because there's not a lot left on your herbs doesn't mean the pesticides used didn't affect surrounding soil, waterways and wildlife.
In some cases, trace pesticides are the least of your worries. In 2005, Health Canada issued a warning about a dozen Ayurvedic tablets, powders and capsules that contained high levels of heavy metals like lead, mercury and/or arsenic. In 2006, several Chinese herbs were blacklisted by the agency because of dangerous bacterial contamination.
The department says you can avoid this kind of contamination by buying only authorized natural medicine with an eight-digit drug identification number (DIN), natural product number (NPN) or homeopathic number (DIN-HM) as proof. It's a good idea to periodically check out Health Canada's website for a list of current advisories, warnings and recalls (www.hc-sc.gc.ca).
So let's say you stop picking endangered herbs. Mega-farms growing medicinal herbs might take the heat off wild supplies, but in countries like China, herbs are pushing out valuable food crops, and big corporations are moving into what was once the territory of the local medical practitioner.
Natural health meds are big business in Canada, too. Ask your health store clerk about smaller local manufacturers with a solid reputation. Their products may cost a little more, but the cheaper brands often use lower-grade ingredients, artificial dyes and hydrogenated oil fillers.
Speaking of oils, everyone's talking about getting healthy oils into our diet, and downing fish pills seems to be one major way to do it. Some experts will tell you to make sure your supplements from the sea are made with the smallest fish in the food chain: namely sardines, herring and the like. Why? Well, they have lower levels of heavy metals, mercury and other pollutants. (Notably, Consumerlab.com tested 41 fish oil brands and found none contained mercury or PCBs, since the oils are said to be distilled to filter out contaminants.)
Trouble is, we're demonstrating our love for the little guys by, in some cases, overfishing them, and the results may be more serious than you'd think. It seems the disappearance of sardines off Africa caused massive amounts of uneaten phytoplankton to rot, releasing the toxic greenhouse gas methane. Researchers actually tied dropping sardine stocks to global warming. Talk about a killer domino effect!
Okay, so most sardines are probably eaten for lunch and not popped as pills. But environmentalists recently criticized the biggest manufacturer of fish oils in America for sucking back limitless quantities of small herring-like menhaden off the East Coast, starving menhaden predators like striped bass and robbing the waters of a great filter fish. The fish oil maker, not surprisingly, says there are plenty more fish in the sea.
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