A supplement capsule containing turmeric and echinacea.
Photo: Nigel Cox

To better understand what’s inside botanical supplements, Consumer Reports decided to put samples of two widely used ones to the test to determine their potency and purity: turmeric (sometimes referred to or sold as curcumin, which is one of its active compounds) and echinacea.

In 2018, echinacea and turmeric were listed as the second and third most popular botanical supplements (after horehound, an ingredient in Ricola cough drops) in the annual market report from the American Botanical Council, a nonprofit group that supports herbal medicine. (Echinacea is sold on its own, and it’s also an ingredient in Airborne, an herbal blend that is claimed to fight colds.) Between 2017 and 2018, sales of turmeric grew 30.5 percent.

Of the 16 echinacea and 13 turmeric products we tested, we identified concerns with more than a third of them, including elevated levels of lead and bacteria, as well as low levels of key active compounds. (We tested only pills, not gummies, powders, or teas.)

Given the lack of regulation surrounding dietary supplements, companies can use a wide variety of standards—including their own. CR’s scientists selected the testing methods and thresholds used in our evaluations based on their expert judgment. Our results are meant to help consumers compare their options and are not indicators of a product’s compliance with any given standard.

Here’s what we found.

TURMERIC
ECHINACEA
PRODUCTS THAT MET CR'S CRITERIA
Echinacea
The Vitamin Shoppe Echinacea Extract
Echinacea
Spring Valley (Walmart) Echinacea Extract
Echinacea
Gaia Herbs Echinacea Supreme
Echinacea
Oregon’s Wild Harvest Echinacea
Echinacea
Rite Aid Pharmacy Echinacea
Echinacea
Nature’s Truth Echinacea
Turmeric
GNC Herbal Plus Turmeric Curcumin
Turmeric
The Vitamin Shoppe Triple Strength Turmeric with Curcumin
Turmeric
Nature’s Way Standardized Turmeric
Turmeric
Sundown Naturals Turmeric
Turmeric
Nature’s Bounty Turmeric
Turmeric
Irwin Naturals Whole-Body Turmeric Extra
Turmeric
Nature Made Turmeric Curcumin
Turmeric
Up & Up (Target) Turmeric
Turmeric
Rexall (Dollar General) Naturalist Turmeric Curcumin
Turmeric
Gaia Herbs Turmeric Supreme Extra Strength
Turmeric
Qunol Extra Strength Turmeric Curcumin Complex
HIGHER LEAD LEVELS
Exceeded the lead limits set by CR.
Echinacea
Sundown Naturals Whole Herb Echinacea
Echinacea
Puritan’s Pride Premium Echinacea
Echinacea
CVS Health Echinacea
Echinacea
Finest Nutrition (Walgreens) Echinacea
Echinacea
Nature’s Bounty Echinacea Whole Herb
Echinacea
Rexall (Dollar General) Whole Herb Echinacea
Turmeric
CVS Health Turmeric Curcumin
HIGHER BACTERIA LEVELS
Exceeded the aerobic bacteria limits set by CR.
Echinacea
Nature’s Way Echinacea Purpurea Herb
Turmeric
Organic India Turmeric Formula
LOW LEVELS OF KEY INGREDIENTS
Contained low or undetectable levels of phenols.
Echinacea
Whole Foods Market Double Echinacea
Echinacea
GNC Herbal Plus Echinacea Extract
Echinacea
Mason Natural Premium Herb Echinacea

Lead

None of the products we tested exceeded the lead standards set by U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), a nonprofit group (see “How to Choose Botanicals Wisely”). But seven had lead levels that exceeded CR’s stricter threshold. “No amount of lead is acceptable,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety research and testing at CR.

A spokesperson for Dollar General said the company stopped selling its affected product (see below) in targeted areas while it analyzed CR’s test results. A spokesperson for CVS said the company “commissioned an independent third-party expert [to confirm] that these products meet or exceed all legal and regulatory requirements.”

The other products with lead levels that exceeded CR’s threshold are all sold by Nature’s Bounty companies. “Any lead present is in amounts that are safe,” says Ashley Dickerson, a Nature’s Bounty spokesperson. What’s more, Dickerson says, “most of the lead in the product is naturally occurring.” However, CR’s Rogers says, “other products we tested were able to keep lead levels under our threshold, so saying it is natural is not an excuse.”

Affected Products
• CVS Health Turmeric Curcumin
• CVS Health Echinacea
• Finest Nutrition (Walgreens) Echinacea
• Nature’s Bounty Echinacea, Whole Herb
• Puritan’s Pride Premium Echinacea
• Rexall (Dollar General) Whole Herb Echinacea
• Sundown Naturals Whole Herb Echinacea

Bacteria

While none of the products we tested contained E. coli or salmonella, some significantly exceeded the USP standards for aerobic bacteria. Higher aerobic bacteria levels don’t necessarily make a supplement unsafe to take, but they can indicate that products were manufactured or processed in unsanitary conditions.

The products listed here exceed the USP threshold for aerobic bacteria. But a Nature’s Way representative said these numbers are acceptable under guidelines from the American Herbal Products Association, an industry group. Organic India said the company had been having problems with counterfeiting and could not confirm to CR that the products we tested were theirs.

Michael McGuffin, president of the AHPA, said the USP standard “is not the only way you can assure a product is good.” But the fact that supplement companies can choose among many standards—or no standard—highlights why it’s so difficult for consumers to know what they’re getting, says Tunde Akinleye, a chemist in Consumer Reports’ food safety division who led our testing.

Affected Products
• Nature’s Way Echinacea Purpurea Herb
• Organic India Turmeric Formula

Key Active Compounds

For echinacea, the important chemicals are known as phenols; in turmeric, they are called curcuminoids.

One of the echinacea products we tested contained less than 20 percent of the phenol count listed on its label. And two other echinacea products didn’t contain any detectable amount of a key phenol associated with the echinacea species listed on the label. This could mean that the listed species wasn’t present or that low-quality echinacea was used, says CR’s Akinleye.

CR reached out to all three companies whose products were affected. Mason told CR that the company was “not making any claims to any standardized extract.” A spokesperson from GNC said, “Our extensive testing has found that this product meets the label claim.” Whole Foods did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Affected Products
• GNC Herbal Plus Echinacea Extract
• Mason Natural Premium Herb Echinacea
• Whole Foods Market Double Echinacea

Products That Met CR’s Testing Criteria

Many products we tested met their label claims and did not exceed limits for heavy metals, such as lead, or for bacteria. That doesn’t mean that they’re safe or effective; it indicates that our tests showed that they are what they’re claimed to be and don’t have the contaminants we tested for.

Products
• Gaia Herbs Echinacea Supreme
• Gaia Herbs Turmeric Supreme Extra Strength
• GNC Herbal Plus Turmeric Curcumin
• Irwin Naturals Whole-Body Turmeric Extra
• Nature Made Turmeric Curcumin
• Nature’s Bounty Turmeric
• Nature’s Truth Echinacea
• Nature’s Way Standardized Turmeric
• Oregon’s Wild Harvest Echinacea
• Qunol Extra Strength Turmeric Curcumin Complex
• Rexall (Dollar General) naturalist Turmeric curcumin
• Rite Aid Pharmacy Echinacea
• Spring Valley (Walmart) Echinacea
• Sundown Naturals Turmeric
• Up & Up (Target) Turmeric
• The Vitamin Shoppe Echinacea Extract
• The Vitamin Shoppe Triple Strength Turmeric with Curcumin

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the December 2019 issue of Consumer Reports.