An international delegation of herbalists and researchers has returned to China to assess the country’s herbal medicine market.
In February, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported that it was selling more than $7.5bn of herbal medicines every year, a number that the government said had grown more than 80 per cent between 2009 and 2021.
The delegation of Chinese experts is part of a wider initiative by the International Council of Herbology and Biotechnology (ICHERBI) to promote the use of Chinese herbal medicine and research into its potential for disease prevention and treatment.
The ICHERBI programme is led by Prof David Hsu of the National University of Singapore and Dr James Lee from the University of Western Australia, and is one of the few such initiatives that has focused on China’s herbal market.
Hsu said ICHERBIs goal was to “develop and disseminate best practice in herbal medicine for global public health”.
He said the ICHERBITs work was to provide “greater transparency in Chinese herbal products and markets”, to help “build up public trust in herbal products” and to “raise awareness and support for herbal products”.ICHERBI has also provided a “whole of product” report to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which is a non-governmental organisation that promotes the use and safety of herbal products.
In its report, the ICHI found that Chinese herbal product brands sold in Australia and the UK had higher than average levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, mercury compounds and other contaminants.
China also ranked highly in a number of other environmental indicators, including arsenic and mercury, which it also banned from the US market in 2011.
“The ICHE has a clear role to play in the development of Chinese markets for herbal medicines,” Hsu said.ICHERBITS report said Chinese herbal medicines are more effective than other herbal medicines at fighting infections, and are less expensive than the average herbal product sold in China.
The report said some Chinese herbal remedies contain substances known as flavonoids, which have been linked to cancer and neurological diseases.
“These compounds are found in many Chinese herbal preparations, including herbal tea, herbal toothpaste, herbal cough syrup, herbal oil and herbal shampoo,” it said.
But the report also highlighted the potential dangers of these compounds in humans.
“There is growing evidence that there are serious health effects associated with ingestion of these materials,” the report said.
Hsi said that while China has made strides in improving the quality of its herbal medicine over the last few decades, the Chinese market remains fragmented.
“I don’t think we have the full picture,” he said.
“Chinese consumers don’t have a whole lot of information about the quality and quantity of Chinese products and how they are marketed.”
The ICERBIs report is the first of its kind to look at China’s markets and said the group wanted to “bring the Chinese herbal market into the global public conversation”.
“There’s a lot more that needs to be done to help educate the Chinese public about herbal medicines, and help people make an informed decision,” Hsi said.