Along with taking advice from their mothers and botánica owners, some Hispanics turn to herbalist doctors who prescribe products for their conditions. For example, Teresa Alonso, 59, an aerospace electronic assembler from Northridge, Calif., uses herbal products to complement conventional medicines to treat her high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Alonso visits Jaime Cuevas Duran, an herbalist who sells his own brand of dietary supplements in Los Angeles.
Alonso says she first learned about herbal remedies from her mother and used them while raising her two children. “However, I do my own research online before taking new supplements, and I do ask my doctor. For example, I drink 'agua de Jamaica,' or hibiscus flower tea, to lower my cholesterol and drink mint tea for stomachache,” she says.
It’s not clear how many Hispanics use these types of remedies. Government statistics show that only about 24 percent of Hispanics use complementary or alternative medicine, compared with about 26 percent of African Americans, 40 percent of Asians, and 43 percent of whites.
In reality, those rates might be higher because of low disclosure rates between health professionals and patients. That may be because patients expect their doctors and nurses to initiate the discussion or because patients have the impression that health-care providers know little about those treatments. Or may fear that the health-care provider will discourage using complementary or alternative medicine.
The botánicas industry is not formally organized. In the U.S., Latino herbal shops are not governed by any association or organizing body, and we couldn’t locate statistics about how many stores are actually out there. Only a handful of scientists and folklorists have studied businesses in the Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York City areas.
For instance, Michael J. Balick, Ph.D., vice president for botanical science, director and philecology curator at the New York Botanical Garden’s Institute of Economic Botany, conducted long-term research focusing on Latino and other immigrant groups in New York City. “We confirmed the widespread use of medicinal plants among Latinos, in this case Dominicans, even after migrating to the U.S.,” Balick says.
The transition from true folk medicine, relying on traditional plants grown in home gardens or collected in the wild, to commercial sales in botánicas, “yerberías,” a synonym of “botánicas,” or “bodegas,” neighborhood Hispanic convenience stores, can be a bumpy one. Potential concerns include accurate product identity, freshness, contamination with heavy metals and pesticides, and interactions with medications.
“There is a concern about quality, starting with identity,” says Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council, a nonprofit research and education organization, and editor of the publication HerbalGram. “I don’t know that the importers, distributors, or buyers are running these herbal materials through any kind of identity testing.” He also said some ethnic stores (including Indian or Chinese herbal shops) might have a supply chain that often bypasses best practices on selection and safety.