How Carefully Did You Read That Label?

Natural health products don't face the same testing as non-prescription medication, but end up on the same shelves. Should this change?


Imagine that you have a headache, so you head over to your local pharmacy and search the shelf with headache remedies. You grab a package that promises “effective headache relief”, go home and pop a couple of pills, only to realize that the box also says “homeopathic medicine”.

It’s a fairly easy mistake to make, considering that natural health products like herbal or homeopathic remedies are currently sold right alongside non-prescription drugs and can make essentially the same medical claims on the package despite wildly different approval processes.

Dr. Matthew Stanbrook, a doctor at Toronto Western Hospital and professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, finds this unacceptable. His recent editorial, published in the Canadian Association of Medicine Journal, advocates for moving natural health products into their own section of the pharmacy.

“As long as stores continue to stock natural health products and nonprescription drugs together in aisles… consumers will continue to assume mistakenly that these products all work equally well,” Stanbrook states in the article.

While non-prescription medication goes through the same approval process as prescription medication, requiring modern clinical evidence of safety and efficacy, all that’s needed for a natural health product to be approved by Health Canada is evidence that it was used therapeutically by someone at some point in time.

In 2015, CBC’s Marketplace got a fake product past Health Canada’s approvals with a few photocopied pages from a homeopathic reference book from 1902. At that time, Health Canada asked manufacturers of children’s homeopathic cough and cold remedies to change their labelling practices, but many brands have yet to comply.

Earlier this year, Health Canada announced that it was looking to update the regulations surrounding “self-care products” including cosmetics, natural remedies, and non-prescription drugs. Their proposal suggests ranking products based on perceived risk – the higher the risk, the more stringent the approval process for that product.

Risk would be determined based on the ingredients in the product as well as the strength of the claims made on the package. Any health claims on product labels would also need to be backed by scientific data.

Although a step in the right direction, Stanbrook is afraid of ambiguity in the new rules creating loopholes “ripe for exploitation”. He also expressed concern about the hesitation to require printed disclaimers on any products not directly approved by Health Canada.

“Alternative medicines with claims based on alternative facts do not deserve an alternative, easy regulatory road to market — at the very least, they need to be moved to an alternative shelf.”

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Malgosia Pakulska is a freelance science writer, speaker, and blogger. She completed her PhD in Professor Molly Shoichet’s lab studying drug delivery systems for spinal cord regeneration after injury. She is still passionate about research and wants to share that excitement with the public. When she is not in the lab, she is experimenting in the kitchen and blogging about it at Smart Cookie Bakes.