Thousands of people take Chinese herbal supplements everyday, but few people know what they are actually taking. To make a decision if a herbal supplement product 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 that is marketed in the United States.


1. Health Supplement Claim
The health supplement claim should clearly describe the product's intended use and its specific health maintenance area. It also lets individuals understand which structure or function of the human body is affected.


For Chinese herbal supplements, health maintenance is achieved through resuming balance of the body. Creating body balance is the key to well-being and is the guiding principle of Chinese medicine. Body balance incorporates balance between yin and yang, qi (vital energy) and blood, the five yin organs and the six yang organs, the twelve meridian systems and lastly balance between the body and the environment.

For example, in the sample label above, Equiguard™ is specifically designed for kidney and prostate health maintenance in individuals with kidney yang deficiency. The resumption of yin yang balance of a particular organ is a common health maintenance strategy in TCM. The concept actually originated from ancient TCM literature Huang Ti Nei Ching (The Yellow Emperor's Medicine Classic), which said: "If yin and yang are not in harmony, it will be like spring without autumn and winter without summer. Therefore, maintenance of yin yang harmony is the best principle for maintaining good health."


2. Some labels show which category of general well-being is promoted by the health supplement product.
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3. Precautions
Unlike side effects listed on drug labels, precautions are not necessarily true proven side effects. A lot of times, they are based on potential interactions of the single herb ingredients or of known interactions of similar products. They are meant as guidance for individuals to be aware of what they should be looking for to avoid a potential adverse reaction. Precautions should clearly state what conditions to be aware of while taking the health supplement.

For Chinese herbal supplements, the whole health maintenance principle is based on resuming the harmony that has been upset within the body. Therefore, individuals should carefully choose the best supplements that are right for their own deficiency pattern in order to obtain optimal health benefits. Usually only essential precautions are listed on labels, individuals should refer to product write-ups or contact the company supplying the supplement so they can have more complete information about the product they are taking. For example, the manufacturer may be able to tell you if any consumers have reported any drug interactions with their product.

Equiguard™'s precautions advise individuals not to take the supplement if they are on diuretic medications, have high blood pressure or constipation. These precautions arise from possible effects of herbs used singly in this mixture and are meant to prevent individuals who may have an unsuitable deficiency pattern from taking this product. In this case, in order to give individuals the safest, most effective and optimal health advice, the Chinese herbal supplement developer chose to adopt a prudent and cautious attitude in establishing precautions for the health supplement. Although these conditions may not be absolute contraindications, they are listed so that individuals can have a more focused and effective health supplement selection.

According to TCM theory, individuals have various of body constitution types, and therefore, different deficiency and excess syndromes will present. Professional Chinese herbal supplement developers being familiar with these concepts should be able to recognize the importance of identifying an individuals' own needs in the delicate health balance. By adopting a detailed approach in the precautions, the credibility of the Chinese herbal supplement product will be increased allowing individuals to make a better health supplement choice with more complete information.
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4. Supplement Facts
The Supplement Facts table is an information box containing a product's main ingredients. It is not required in all countries labeling requirements. For herbal supplements, it generally contains the herb's botanical name or its common name, the plant part of the ingredient herbs (e.g. root, stem, fruit, seed), suggested serving size and amount per serving. The herbs are required to be listed in order from the most prevalent to the least prevalent in the mixture.


For Chinese herbal supplements, information in the Supplement Facts table actually reveals the balance resuming strategy of the herbal formula and combination. In addition to listing the ingredient herbs in the order of weight proportion, different herbal ingredients usually play different roles in the herbal combination. According to TCM theory, herbs are usually classified into four groups, namely the monarch, minister, assistant and guide depending on their functions.

These four groups are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Sometimes one herb can play all four roles simultaneously. Sometimes several herbs combine together to exert a synergistic effect, sometimes herbs of contradicting properties are deliberately put together to provide dynamic balancing effects. The strategy applied in the herbal combination is the soul of the health wisdom granted by the Chinese herbal supplement. It is usually complex and more than just the additive effects of the individual herbs. Therefore, it is important to realize that escalating a dose may not produce more beneficial health effects.



5. Plant Parts
In Chinese herbal supplements, herbs of different species are used to provide combination health maintenance effects so that the upset body balance can be resumed. But even for the same species of herb, different plant parts can have different natural ingredients and hence different pharmacological actions.

According to TCM theory, the plant parts have additional meaning because of their associated meridian and yin yang properties. Therefore, good Chinese herbal supplements should have clear information 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 shown in brackets.


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6. Other Ingredients
During the manufacturing process of most health supplements, other ingredients are commonly used to make up convenient dosage forms like tablets and capsules or to help bind the ingredients together. Any coloring or additives used are also listed here. Often, these ingredients are inert and listed for the complete ingredient information for label readers.

For example, on the Equiguard™ label, other ingredients include hydroxypropyl methylcellulose and titanium dioxide. They are actually the ingredients that make up the vegetarian empty capsule shells.
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7. Suggested Use
Suggested use of a health supplement should include 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. This information is important for the optimal absorption of the health supplements into the body. If a dosage range is listed, it is recommended to contact the manufacturer or distributor to ask which dosage would be most suitable and with which dosage to start. If this is not possible, it is always advisable to start with the lowest recommended dosage and work up to the maximum dosage while observing for health benefits and potential adverse effects.
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8. Distributed By or Manufactured By
This section lists name and address of the distributor or manufacturer. Should an individual have any query about the health supplement, he/she may contact the distributor/manufacturer for more information.

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9. Best Before
Best Before shows the shelf-life of the health supplement products. Shelf-life is the period during which the quality of a supplement is expected to remain within acceptable limits.
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10. Batch Number
The inclusion of a batch number is a standard labeling requirement for batch identification. It helps both the consumer and the company to identify the product should 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.