Modern-day dietary supplements—particularly herbal supplements—have remained controversial since their inception. Proponents tout that herbal supplements, because of their concentration, are extremely potent and helpful for supporting a wide range of body functions. Those who oppose herbal supplements, on the other hand, claim these products may pose a significant health concern, especially if they contain any level of bacteria. While many herbal supplements do display measurable levels of bacteria counts, particularly in roots such as turmeric and ginger, these bacteria levels may actually be relatively benign if not beneficial for the human body.
Is There Bacteria in My Nutritional Supplement?
Food grown for supplementation purposes, like herbs, barks, and roots, often contain naturally-occurring, soil-based bacteria. This bacteria, while alarming to most, is naturally present in all foods within the plant kingdom. Supplement companies must perform rigorous testing on all of their products to determine bacteria count, commonly reported in colony-forming units (CFUs). A colony-forming unit is simply a measurement of the amount of viable bacteria residing in a sample.
Here’s a quick view of the categories of food and their recognized bacteria levels. Each category is either naturally high, medium, or low in bacteria levels. Note that the food category that is high in CFUs has no set standards for bacterial recommendations, whereas the medium to low categories have limits as to how much bacteria should be contained within the final product:
|High||Raw, dried, fermented plant materials (roots, stems, flowers, leaves, barks, etc.)||None/Not Applicable|
|Medium||Luncheon meats, desserts, fish, condiments, processed and preserved cooked foods||Less than 100,000 CFUs/g|
|Low||Cooked, processed foods, including ready-to-eat frozen foods||Less than 10,000 CFUs/g|
A further analysis can be found in Viable Bacteria of Colony-Forming Units (CFUs) in Dietary Supplements: A Safety Review.
What the science shows, however, is that fresh foods and dried, powdered, and extracted plant and root material contain a high level of CFUs. This bacteria is naturally occurring in the soil, and the majority of these microorganisms pose no serious health threats. High CFUs may be indicative of the health and biodiversity of the soil in which certain herbs, roots, or plants are grown. After all, bacteria resides in all living things, including the human body. Without bacteria, life would not be possible.
Soil-based organisms are often included in a CFU count, and these organisms actually support digestive, brain, and immune health. Consumers of dietary supplements, seeing that a natural plant-based supplement contains CFUs, voice concern that the product might contain dangerous bacteria. This misguided notion is simply a misunderstanding as to the type of bacteria present. Typically, a high CFU count in a dietary supplement doesn’t indicate the quality or safety of a product.
Many companies believe that dietary supplements should be irradiated in order to reduce this bacteria; however, the high levels of colony-forming units (viable and live bacteria) contained within these supplements may actually be benign in nature, if not potentially beneficial for the body. Irradiation is also a terrible way of ensuring the safety and efficacy of dietary supplements. The process of irradiation may actually pose more harm to the body by producing certain levels of carcinogenic compounds, like furan.
Global Healing Center has recently produced a white paper review on the viable bacteria contained within supplements consisting of extracted roots (turmeric and ginger, being examples), leaves, and various barks. We have gathered relevant information from a large pool of scientific journals, health organizations, and universities all over the world. This is the first paper of its kind to demonstrate the safety of CFUs in dietary supplements. It’s our hope that this review may initiate further investigations into herbal supplements and their naturally-occurring, beneficial bacteria.
by Dr. Edward Group DC, NP, DACBN, DCBCN, DABFM