Herbs of Love

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

A woman at Yerberia La Unica, at Central and Southern avenues, says some customers come from Mexico to buy una de gato because they don't trust brands sold there. On the other hand, the brand sold at La Unica, Peruvian Rainforest Botanicals, bears an official-looking gold seal of authenticity. It will also run you $24.95 for 30 capsules.

Soza has had to convince customers that her Nature's Herbs-brand cat's claw is just as good as the Nutrivida brand (Es la autentica!) they've seen on TV.

In his starkly furnished house near Third Street and Broadway Road, Fidencio Hinojosa is a case in point. "This guy makes a lot of movies in Mexico," he says, referring to Nutrivida pitchman Andres Garcia. "I listened to him on TV. It's better buying from them instead of going to these yerberias. The quality is not the same."

An aging, bearded musician of 63, Hinojosa paid Nutrivida $59.95 for a shipment of una de gato and shark cartilage, a mix he heard was good for rheumatoid arthritis. The combination was promoted in a column by Yerberia San Francisco's Rosa Maria Estrada in Prensa Hispana, a local Spanish-language newspaper, but Estrada offered no substantiation for the claim.

Adela Lujan, a South Phoenix community organizer, says she also plans to order some for herself and a daughter-in-law who is ill. "I have faith in that stuff, especially when it comes from the jungle," she says. "But there's some stuff I don't believe in, like those creams that remove fat. You gotta exercise and eat right to do that."

One recent afternoon, a short, hale, 70-year-old man who regularly buys garlic from Soza enters the store and inquires as to this una de gato he's been hearing about.

Soza walks to the shelves where the cat's claw is displayed, and hands him a bottle for inspection.

He rolls it around in his hand for a few seconds, then looks up. Es la autentica? he asks.

Es la igual! Soza says. It's the same thing.
Don't you have the other kind? he asks.
Por que quiere otra clase? Why do you need the other brand? She tells him he's been watching too much Channel 33.

Later, she says: "People from Mexico watch Channel 33 [the Valley's Univision affiliate]. Everything it says is gospel to them. They don't realize this una de gato is distributed to all the health stores in the U.S.

"It's because of that actor, the one who says it helped his cancer. I'm not saying it didn't; I'm pretty sure it did. But they think it's the only one."

As one of the few bilingual staffers at Mountain Park Health Center on Baseline Road in Phoenix, Charmaine Trujillo, operations director for internal medicine, spends a lot of time translating for physicians attempting to communicate with Spanish speakers. Nevertheless, she says of una de gato, "this is the first I've heard of it."

"That's not something we can help you with," says Dorothy Garcia, whose husband, Robert, runs a family medical practice in central Phoenix with a largely Latino clientele.

Gil Meza of the FDA says that's not unusual. "Most doctors are not familiar with una de gato, with how it works or its content or whether it's safe," he says. "We find that a lot of people take dietary supplements without their doctor's knowledge. If they get sick, they stay home and tough it out, because they don't want to let the doctor know they didn't follow their recommendation."

Rachel Pollack, a nurse with Maricopa Medical Center's diabetes program, says she recently met an elderly woman in Guadalupe who developed loss of balance and extreme lethargy after taking twice the recommended amount of una de gato. Although hypoglycemic and probably on her way to diabetes, "she's very healthy and active," Pollack says. "So it really scared her."

If cat's claw was the culprit, it would be an exception to the rule: So far, research has shown una de gato to be fairly harmless, even in large doses.

What health officials really fear is that patients will put so much faith in something like una de gato that they'll abandon prescription medications. "The problem is that [manufacturers] offer a glitzy quick fix without too much effort being expended," says Ray Childs of the state Health Department's diabetes program. "Diabetes takes a lot of work to keep it under control."

Antoney Aguallo of Body Positive, a support agency for people with HIV/AIDS, says one woman told him that her brother, who has cancer, abandoned his treatment in favor of una de gato and "is doing incredibly well now."

Still, Aguallo says, "I wouldn't recommend that."
Such anecdotal evidence abounds, most of it secondhand, and whether it's the magic beans or the placebo effect is impossible to know without study. But with research elsewhere showing promising results for una de gato's effectiveness in fighting viral and bacterial infection and gastrointestinal ailments, the question would seem to be: Why isn't it being actively studied in the U.S.?

"That's a question I ask myself all the time," says Lise Alschuler, who chairs thebotanical medicine department at Scottsdale's Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine. Like others in her field, she suspects the answer has much to do with politics and vested interests. Funding for plant research is hard to get.

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