How to Understand a Chinese Herbal Supplement Label

Thousands of people take Chinese herbal supplements everyday, but few people know what they are really taking. To make a decision whether a herbal supplement is right for you, consumers should first know how to read and interpret the information presented on the label. The following information helps you become more familiar with the basic elements on a Chinese herbal label, especially the herbal products marketed in the United States.

Equiguard™ label

Equiguard™ label, a sample labeling for Chinese herbal supplement

1.Health Claim

Health claim on a supplement label describes the product’s intended use and its specific benefits in health. It also lets consumers understand which part or function of the body will be affected.

For Chinese herbal supplements, their health benefits are mainly achieved through resuming proper functions and shifting to a new balance of the body. Maintaining balance is the key to well-being and is the guiding principle in Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Balance in TCM understanding incorporates balance between yin and yang, between qi (vital energy) and blood, between the five yin organs and the six yang organs, balance of the twelve meridians, and lastly balance between the body and the environment; all that based on the views of whole-body, whole-person, whole-world.

For example, in above sample label, Equiguard™ is specifically designed for supporting kidney and urinary health, in particular for individuals with night frequency and dribbling after urination (kidney yang deficiency). Resumption of yin yang balance for a particular organ is a common health strategy in TCM. The strategy was established as early as 2000 years ago; TCM bible Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine states: “For the key of yin yang, yang qi should be efficient and intense so that yin qi can protect and consolidate the body. If yin and yang become disharmony, it will be like spring without autumn while winter without summer. Therefore, keeping yin and yang harmony is the best strategy for good health.”

2. Some labels also show which health category that the products are aimed at.

3. Precaution

Precaution states what conditions to be aware of while taking a health supplement. Unlike side effects listed on drug labels, precautions listed on Chinese herbal supplements are not necessarily fully proven side effects. They are usually based on potential interactions of identified active ingredients of single herbs or known interactions of similar products. Also in TCM clinical experiences, certain symptom patterns are contraindicated so as to avoid the undesirable results when taking herbs. The information is meant to remind consumers of what should be looking for in order to avoid any potential adverse reaction.

For the precaution in above Equiguard™ label, those who are on diuretic medications, have high blood pressure or constipation are not advised to take the supplement. These precautions arise from possible effects of herbs used singly in the herbal mixture and are meant to prevent consumers who may have an unsuitable body condition from taking this product. In order to give consumers the safest and reliable health advice, developers of Chinese herbal supplements tend to adopt a prudent and cautious attitude in establishing precautions for their products. Although the conditions may not be absolute contraindications, they are listed for consumers to have a more focused and effective health choice.

TCM recognizes that constitution factors make consumers response differently to herbal supplements, and therefore body types are important considerations when selecting herbal products. Professional herbal developers will remind consumers of individual health needs, both the health condition and the body constitution. By adopting a detailed approach in the precautions, the credibility of Chinese herbal products will be enhanced, and consumers can make a better health supplement choice.

For Chinese herbal supplements, the whole healthcare principle is based on resuming the disharmony that has been upset within the body. Consumers should select a supplement that is not only based on their own conditions, but also fit their disharmony patterns, in order to obtain optimal health benefits. Usually only essential precautions are listed on the labels, you can refer to product write-ups or contact the company for more complete information about the product. The manufacturer is also able to tell you if there is any drug interaction reported.

4. Supplement Facts

Supplement Facts is an information box containing the main ingredients in a product. It is not a labeling requirement for all countries. For herbal supplements, it generally contains botanical names or common names, the plant part of the ingredients (e.g. root, stem, fruit, seed), suggested serving size and amount per serving. The herbs are required to place in proper order, ranking from the highest amount to the least in the mixture.

Chinese herbal therapy is generally formula based and single herbs are rarely used. The herbs in the formula are not simply added in a cumulative fashion but combined according to particular principles. TCM holds that every medicinal substance has its strengths and its shortcomings, and each ingredient in the formula should be carefully balanced in quality and quantity, in order to accentuate its efficacy while reducing side effects. It is a tradition to rank the compositions in four groups when analyzing the roles playing in the formula, namely monarch, minister, assistant and guide depending on the actions. Herbs in a formula are not necessarily playing only one role, but can play several roles. Therefore, it is important for consumers to take supplements as instructed; any change in dosage may not bring more health effects.

5. Plant Parts

Chinese herbal therapy used a wide range of herbs to promote health. Even for the same species of herb, different plant parts have different natural ingredients and hence exert different pharmacological actions. In TCM this has additional meaning, as the different actions of plant parts are attributed to meridian tropism and yin yang properties. Good Chinese herbal supplements will clearly inform about the name of the plant ingredients and their corresponding plant parts. For example in Equiguard™, the Supplement Facts table has listed the Latin botanical names of the herbal ingredients in the order of weight proportion, Plant Parts are also shown in brackets.

6. Other Ingredients

During the manufacturing of herbal products, some ingredients are commonly used to make up ideal dosage forms like tablets and capsules, or used to help binding the ingredients together. Any coloring used is also listed here. Often, these so called additives are inert in actions, and just listed to provide a complete ingredient information for consumers.

For example in the Equiguard™ label, other ingredients include hydroxypropyl methylcellulose and titanium dioxide. They are actually the ingredients that make up its vegetarian capsule. 

7. Suggested Use

Suggested Use of a health supplement includes the quantity to be taken or the amount to be used, the frequency and timing of administration, and the route of administration. While most supplements are meant to be taken orally, a few are applied topically. The information is important for optimal absorption of health supplement by the body. If only a dosage range is suggested, it is recommended to contact the manufacturer or distributor and ask what dosage would be most suitable for you, or what is the initial dose to start. If this is not possible, it is always advisable to start with the lowest suggested dose and work up to the maximum dose while observing for health benefits and potential adverse effects. 

8. Distributor or Manufacturer

This section lists name and address of the distributor or manufacturer. Should you have any query about the health supplement, you can contact the distributor or manufacturer for more information.

9. Best Before

Best Before shows the shelf-life of the health supplements. Shelf-life is the period during which the quality of a supplement is expected to remain within acceptable limits.

10. Batch Number

The inclusion of a batch number is a standard labeling requirement. It helps both the consumer and the company to track and check the manufacturing processes when problems arise. Good batch traceability is one of the quality requirements for all health supplements.

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Written By:

Angelo Chung, B Pharm., Integrated Chinese Medicine Holdings Ltd.

Edited By

Angela Collingwood, MSN, Integrated Chinese Medicine Holdings Ltd.
Rose Tse, Integrated Chinese Medicine Holdings Ltd.