Compléments Alimentaires
Expert assessment
2 min

Improving consumer information on herbal food supplements

Many food supplements contain plants, particularly medicinal plants, which may pose a health risk due to possible interactions with medicines, contraindications, etc. Yet consumers are not necessarily informed of such risks. In order to avoid these adverse effects, ANSES has published an opinion and provided healthcare professionals with a tool to help them better inform their patients about 118 medicinal plants used in food supplements.

A lack of information on the potential effects of plants in these products

Unlike medicines, food supplements do not come with a compulsory leaflet informing consumers about the product's safety. Only a few brief details are required on the label, such as the identity of the ingredients. Simply mentioning the presence of plants in food supplements can sometimes be deceptively reassuring for consumers, even though some plants may pose a risk under certain conditions of use, depending on the type of plant extract or the sensitivity of particular populations, such as pregnant women or children. Furthermore, consumers are very rarely given advice on food supplements, and may therefore consume products that are unsuitable for their own state of health.

A new tool to support healthcare professionals, a first in Europe

The Agency has analysed and adapted the existing statements and restrictions for herbal medicinal products, adapting them for food supplements containing these same plants. This analysis was the subject of a recently-published opinion. One of the opinion's annexes lists all the precautions for use, recommendations, contraindications and potential drug interactions relating to 118 medicinal plants used in food supplements.

To facilitate access to this information, ANSES has created an online table giving summarised information for each plant. Primarily intended for doctors, pharmacists and nutritionists, it is designed to help them provide better support for consumers of food supplements. This is an extract from the information contained in Annex 4 of the opinion, which can be consulted for further information.

Continuing to improve the safety of food supplements

In this opinion, ANSES once again points out that the consumption of herbal food supplements is not without risk. Far from being harmless, these products can cause sometimes serious adverse effects, such as severe allergies or potentially fatal liver damage.

To improve consumer safety, the Agency recommends that manufacturers explicitly state any restrictions on use linked to the presence of plants, in the leaflet or on the packaging.

It also recommends that healthcare professionals responsible for advising on and selling food supplements should take training courses on the safety and use of the plants contained in food supplements.

Report any adverse effects to the nutrivigilance scheme

If you are a healthcare professional, be sure to ask your patients about their consumption of food supplements. By reporting adverse effects of which you become aware to the nutrivigilance scheme, you are helping to improve knowledge of these products and consumer safety.