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When is a plant a medicine?

There is much legal confusion in the status of herbal remedies. For example

  • In Europe they are classified as herbal medicinal products when used for any purpose to affect the function of the human body as well as for the treatment of disease; however there is also a category of 'botanical' food supplements that can make lower level 'health maintenance' claims and often involve lower dose levels.

  • In the USA they are classified as 'botanical' dietary supplements that may be used to change structure and function (though not for the treatment of illnesses)

  • In Canada they are included in a broad category of Natural Health Products for which limited claims can be made.

  • In Australia they are included with all other medicines as Therapeutic Goods.

This has led to serious discrepancies. In Germany and France ginkgo and St John's wort are familiar medicines, obtained mainly from pharmacies and under doctor's prescription; in the USA they are dietary supplements and because they were never licensed as medicines in the UK they are classified as food supplements there as well!

In these pages we stay with the traditional European view that if it is used as a medicine, and looks like a medicine, it probably is a medicine. A medicine requires much more discipline in its manufacture and so will be of a much more reliable pharmaceutical standard. There is also a requirement on manufacturers of medicines to monitor side-effects and to register these with the authorities. This happens in Europe, and to some extent also in Canada and Australia.

In this view if you collect garlic for cooking, or even home use as a treatment, it can be classified and sold as a food. As soon as you buy a garlic product that says on the label that it is to help with cholesterol or infections, then that should be produced to the same standards as other medicines (especially as the dosage is usually higher).

We are not the first to think this. The word 'drug' comes from the old European drogen meaning dried plants. Galen, the founder of western medicine almost 2,000 years ago was quite clear on this. The role of foods was to support health by virtue of their substance. The role of medicines was to engage illness by virtue of their dynamic qualities.

We mostly talk about plants that do things in the body and use the term 'medicine' to describe them.



SustainCare CIC

contact us           Where to find us? Last Updated: 14 September 2011