Longform

Herbs of Love

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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.

In Florida, the Attorney General's Office is looking into cat's claw advertising for possible deception. The Arizona Attorney General's Office says any complaints received about a product are confidential until someone is formally charged, and, to date, no one has been. AG's Office spokeswoman Karie Dozer says her office may not hear from potential ua de gato complainants because "a lot of Spanish-speaking people don't know about us."

Ann Guler of the FTC's Los Angeles office says that when it comes to health products, the agency has its hands full with scads of weight-loss and balding-cure claims. The agency also has a policy of keeping complaints secret until a lawsuit has been lodged, but in recent years has brought cases involving phony cures for AIDS, allergies, anorexia, obesity, breast cancer, heart disease and the flu. In each, distributors could not substantiate their claims.

Meanwhile, cat's claw mania rolls on. A newsletter called Cat's Claw News is published out of Georgetown, Colorado. The herb has its own Web site on the Internet. "We're going to be coming out with an ua de gato shampoo soon," one vendor told the Chicago Sun-Times last fall.

In a Miami print advertisement, actor Erik Estrada pushes una de gato produced by Premier Vitamins Corporation, saying it "helped alleviate the arthritis that was developing in my broken wrist which was caused in part from some accidents that occurred during the filming of my show CHiPs." The ad says a donation to AIDS research will be made for every bottle sold.

"This is just the Latino version of the melatonin fad," says Felipe Castro of ASU's Hispanic Research Center. He advocates natural substances, "but a testimonial based on spontaneous remission, or people who take it and say, 'It happened to me, it could happen to you, too'--that's not good public health."

"There's a certain amount of mystique in taking something from a wilderness," says John Renner of the Consumer Health Information Research Center in Kansas City, which monitors potential health fraud. "But we just had some people in Maine die from what they thought was water ginseng; [instead], it was water hemlock."

Closer to home, copycat's claw has clobbered some clueless consumers. In Texas, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported that some people became ill after ingesting a cheap version of una de gato. The plant was Acacia gregii, a hook-thorned shrub of the same nickname that grows along the Texas-Mexico border and is believed to contain a wee bit of cyanide. (Locally, the yellow trumpet vine is also known as cat's claw vine, the claw referring to its three-pronged tendrils.)

"I went to a holistic conference in New York City, and [una de gato] was being marketed more heavily than anything I've ever seen," Renner says. It's the "cure-all," queen-on-the-chessboard power of the claims that he questions; most products that live up to hype have a specific purpose. But, he notes: "It's not just a Hispanic phenomenon. The AIDS community has jumped on it, too."

Thanks to people like Esther Perla, the nation's natural-cure industry was managing pretty well on its own before cat's claw came along. It was doing so on the shoulders of panicked, aging baby boomers, last year's melatonin craze and people who don't eat their vegetables.

Herbal medicines speak to personal empowerment, and the $4billion-a-year vitamin-and-dietary-supplement industry is growing at a 15 percent clip.

Newsweek reported last September that consumers would spend nearly $1billion on herbs and other tonics in 1995, about a third of what they spent on vitamins and minerals. At the time, the movement's largest beneficiary, General Nutrition Center Corporation, had opened a new store daily for three years running.

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Marc Ramirez