Consumer Reports Tests Echinacea Products

January 7, 2004

4 Min Read
<I>Consumer Reports</I> Tests Echinacea Products

YONKERS, N.Y.--In the February 2004 edition of Consumer Reports (, 19 echinacea products were tested and recommendations were given based on echinacea levels meeting labeled amounts and contamination issues.

For example, three products had less than the labeled amount of echinacea, varying substantially from product to product, even from bottle to bottle of the same product. Two products contained little or none of an echinacea species listed on the label. Four products contained amounts of lead that, while small, exceeded California's Prop 65--a state law that warns consumers about contaminants. However, Consumer Reports found no detectable spoilage, microbial contamination, pesticides or heavy metals other than lead in the products that were tested. In addition, Consumer Reports reported only three products carried adequate warnings about who should and should not use echinacea, and no products were labeled with the recommendation that echinacea should only be taken for a short period of time.

The article also reported on the science behind echinacea and cold prevention and treatment. For instance, even though echinacea stimulates the immune system to fight viruses responsible for the common cold, the effect wanes with extended use. However, the magazine reported treating a cold may be where echinacea's strength lies. "The evidence from randomized, controlled clinical trials in adults, while not conclusive, suggests that echinacea is a moderately effective treatment for colds if its taken within the first few hours after symptoms appear," the article's authors wrote. "In four of the better designed trials involving a total of more than 700 volunteers, echinacea either shortened colds by about one to two days or reduced symptoms by 10 percent to 40 percent."

The article concluded with how consumers can find an efficacious and safe echinacea product:

* Pick a product with minimal lead contamination.

* Choose an echinacea-only product.

* Look for the lowest priced phenols (the product cost divided by phenol levels per serving). The more phenols, the more echinacea the pills generally contain.

* Consider the dose.

* Ignore other variations: type of pill (powder vs. extract), species (angustifolia vs. purpurea) and plant part (root vs. other). As with dosage, theres little or no reliable data on whether any of the above variations affect echinaceas performance or safety. (However, the efficacy of teas and tinctures compared to pills is currently unknown, according to Consumer Reports.)

* Dont trust labels.

Based on these considerations, Consumer Reports reported that of the 19 products tested, Spring Valley Echinacea (Wal-Mart), Origin Echinacea (Target) and Sundown Echinacea were its top three picks based on phenol content and price.

The article went on to report that Americans have spent in the multimillions for other cold remedies in 2002: $58 million for zinc and $214 million for vitamin C, compared with $190 million for echinacea. Their verdict? "Results of 18 controlled clinical trials of zinc lozenges or nasal sprays during the past two decades have been mixed, with only half showing a reduction in the length or severity of colds, and no consensus on which studies were most reliable," the article's authors wrote. "[W]hile results of clinical trials have been mixed, [researchers] suggest that megadoses of vitamin C produce at best only a slight reduction, if any, in the duration and severity of the common cold."

"I think its good news that Consumer Reports writes that echinacea works when taking it after the first few symptoms of a cold appear," said Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council (ABC) ( He added that the magazine didn't come out of left field regarding its test results. "Overall, they treated this like any other product they're testing--TVs, cell phones, toasters--and instead of doing an expose and putting out biased information, they're reporting on their tests. In terms of the lead they found that exceeds Prop 65, that finding is negligible, since this is an almost impossible standard to meet, anyway."

Regarding warning labels on echinacea, Blumenthal said these products are usually safe and don't have the high priority for warning labels as do herbs such as ephedra and the potential interactions of St. John's wort and conventional drugs. "However, we at ABC believe products should carry as many adequate warnings as possible for people with conditions such as diabetes or who are pregnant, when contraindications may occur."

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