News Briefs

Unsafe Herbal Products Still Available on the Web

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued warnings in 2001 about the safety of herbal products containing aristolochic acid. The products, however, are still available for sale on the Internet, says a recent letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. FDA issued the alert after aristolochic acid was linked to kidney failure and cancer. Several other countries have even banned products containing the chemical. (The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies products containing aristolochia species as human carcinogens.) The FDA, however, cannot take this step because the law does not allow it to regulate herbs and other dietary supplements.

In the letter, researchers Lois Swirsky Gold, PhD, and Thomas H. Slone, MS, at the University of California at Berkeley, say the availability of the products on the Internet reveals a "serious flaw in the safety protection afforded the public." In 2003, they identified 19 products containing aristolochic acid and 95 products suspected to contain aristolochic acid for sale on U.S. web sites. These products and approximately 100 related web sites are listed at http://potency.berkeley.edu/aristolochicacid.html. These herbal products are sold for gastrointestinal symptoms, weight loss, cough, and immune stimulation.

"The failure to protect the public from the imminent hazard of aristolochic acid indicates that there is an urgent need to remove these products from the web and to develop a policy that addresses web sales of hazardous herbal products," the researchers say.

Study Shows Drinking Black Tea Lowers Cholesterol

A recent study shows that drinking tea lowered low-density lipoprotein—the LDL "bad" cholesterol—for a small group of volunteers. Results of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) study were reported in the October 2003 issue of the Journal of Nutrition. The study was led by research chemist Joseph T. Judd, PhD, with the agency’s Diet and Human Performance Laboratory, one of seven laboratories at ARS’ Beltsville (MD) Human Nutrition Research Center. ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.

The study assessed the effects of black tea consumption on blood lipid concentrations in adults with mildly high cholesterol. Seven men and eight women were given five servings of black tea per day for three weeks, and a tea-flavored water for another three-week period. In a third study period, caffeine was added to the tea-flavored water in an amount similar to that found in the tea.

Researchers found a 6-10% reduction in blood lipids in black tea drinkers in just three weeks. The study showed no effect on high-density lipoprotein, the HDL "good" cholesterol. The study’s authors concluded that drinking black tea, in combination with following a prudent diet moderately low in fat, cholesterol, and saturated fatty acids, reduces total and LDL cholesterol by significant amounts and may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

U.S. Study Shows Vitamins Save Health Care Costs

Giving vitamins to the elderly may save health care dollars, a recent study suggests. The study, conducted on behalf of Wyeth Consumer Health by health care consultant The Lewin Group, finds that vitamins could improve overall health, making elderly people less likely to need drugs or hospital care. The study was launched with the aim of finding an inexpensive way to save money in health care.

The five-year estimate of potential savings (or cost offsets) resulting from improved immune functioning and a reduction in the relative risk of coronary artery disease through providing older adults with a daily multivitamin is approximately $1.6 billion, the report says, according to Reuters. It also says that the five-year estimated cost offset associated with avoidable hospitalization for heart attacks is approximately $2.4 billion. The report concludes that over five years, it would cost $2.3 billion to provide a daily multivitamin to older adults in the United States.

The group looked at a range of studies and reports. For instance, it studied the effects of taking vitamins on five diseases: coronary artery disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, prostate cancer, and colorectal cancer. The group also examined literature concerning the effects of multivitamins on immune functioning in older adults and the potential health care savings that might result from avoiding the hospitalizations, nursing home stays, and home health services associated with pneumonia, cellulitis, kidney and urinary tract infections, and septicemia.

Survey Finds CAM Services on the Rise

Hospitals were more likely to offer complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) services in 2002 than in 2001, according to the American Hospital Association Annual Survey of Hospitals for 2002. The survey shows that the proportion of hospitals offering CAM services increased by 0.8 percentage points in 2002. About 16.5% of the 4,756 hospitals that answered the services questionnaire in the survey said they provide CAM, up from 15.7% of 4,773 respondents in 2001. Large hospitals reported the largest rise in CAM services, up 6.7 percentage points for hospitals with 300 to 399 beds and 10 percentage points for those with 400 to 499 beds. Hospitals with 25 to 49 beds were the only size category to see a decrease in CAM services, down three-tenths of a percentage point.