Herbs of Love

Pills made from a Peruvian vine known as Cat's Claw are all the rage among Latino health buffs

From the living-room sofa, she watches as her 1-year-old son reaches innocently for anything within grasp.

"Hey," she exclaims, flashing her bottle of una de gato capsules. She has heard of too many testimonies to just give up. "With this, I may live longer than that."

Around the country, cat's claw fever takes hold: In New York, a 77-year-old Cuban emigre says an ovarian tumor turned out to be benign because of una de gato. A Miami chiropractor begins telling patients about the herb after it eases his grandmother's arthritis and joint pain.

A vendor in San Jose, California, tells the newspapers he takes una de gato because it makes him feel "younger, more energized." And Penny King of the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas, says her husband swears by it after taking it for an enlarged prostate. Did it work? "Something did," she says. Then again, she also has a friend who imports the stuff from Peru.

The most significant and most cited in thegrowing conga line of individual testimonies, however, is that of actor Andres Garcia. You probably have never heard of Garcia, but he is to Mexican cinema what someone like, say, Clint Eastwood is to theAmerican movie landscape.

Now, instead of starring in another action film, Garcia is the headliner in ubiquitous infomercials hawking bottles of una de gato on Spanish-language networks like Univision, Telemundo and GEMS. The bottles are sold by Brooklyn-based Nutrivida, which imports its u–a de gato from a Peruvian company founded by Oscar Schuler Egg, who, the ad says, pinpointed the particular ingredients that give the herb its power.

A few years ago, Garcia's fans discovered that this 57-year-old, turtlenecked hunk, this father of more than a dozen children by several wives, this virile titan said to have fought off a pair of carjackers in Mexico City, had developed cancer of the prostate.

In the ads, Garcia tells the interviewer that after three months of taking una de gato, his cancer had gone into remission. Within a year, he said, it was completely gone. His story is buttressed with reports of u–a de gato studies overseas and its use in fighting diseases such as AIDS.

Throughout the broadcast--peppered with shots of Machu Picchu and weathered Peruvian faces spelling ancient wisdom--a voice exhorts viewers not to settle for the implied substandard botanical concoctions of other brands. "Es la autentica!" it intones repeatedly. In other words--Nutrivida: It's the real thing.

"They actually go down to Peru," Gil Meza of the FDA's Phoenix office says of the infomercial. "They literally go into the jungle and find the tree. Then it shows them knocking the tree down and bringing it into the manufacturing plant, and the next thing you see are these people in white coats, like an assembly line, packing it into boxes."

The Nutrivida brand is priced at $29.95 for 60 capsules, or about five times more than most u–a de gato found in Valley yerberias and health stores.

"There's another program," Meza says, "an investigative-type show, where they interview six people--one guy lost half his liver, and it regenerated. There's another guy with HIV, and his white-cell count has gone up. Another guy has bone cancer, and then no trace of it--real miraculous cures, all as a result of taking una de gato."

As for clinical studies supporting it all, Meza says: "From all indications, none of that has been done."

Not in the U.S., anyway. But herbal scribes say studies of una de gato's unique mixture of alkaloids have been ongoing since the Seventies at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, the universities of Milan and Naples in Italy, and England's Huntington Research Center.

Studies also are reportedly under way in Peru, where the popularity of the vine has forced the government to act to keep it from being wiped out. It is now illegal to harvest or disturb the plant's root. For many Peruvian highland farmers, una de gato has unseated coca, the source of cocaine, as their numero-uno crop.

During the Eighties, as European researchers began reporting on una de gato's clinical use with AZT in treating AIDS and heightened immunity in cancer patients, scientists hotfooted it into the jungle; they returned with accounts of how the Peruvian Ashanica Indians used una de gato to treat a variety of health problems involving the immune and digestive systems.

Peruvian manufacturers weren't shy about hyping such curative powers in their labeling. But that doesn't fly in the U.S. without some serious Yankee clinical testing to back up that hype. The FDA quashed such claims on packaging of una de gato sold in the country.

Still, you never know what vendors themselves are going to say. But that's for the Federal Trade Commission to worry about.

"I've been in botanicas, and many times it's the salesperson that makes the pitch on it," Meza says. "You tell them you're looking for something for cancer, and they turn around and give you this little vial. Then you ask questions, and they say you just have to have faith in it."

At the Christown Hi-Health store, a smallplacard folded along a shelf of Nature's Herbs-brand cat's claw last month informed buyers that the dietary supplement has been "historically used to treat" a number of ailments, including diabetes, ulcers, arthritis and PMS. A bottle of 100, 550-milligram capsules sold for $9.99.

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