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The field of dietary supplement research has not kept pace with the burgeoning interest by consumers in the use of these products, particularly those of plant origin. Consumers and patients increasingly are demanding better evidence to support the claims that are made for effectiveness, safety and quality of these ingredients. Such scientific evidence exists, of course, but it is of widely variable quality. The abundance of information to support reasonable claims for some ingredients is easily matched by the enormous gaps in knowledge about others.

Part of the reason for that exists in the way that herbal use has been translated to modern society. Many herbal ingredients have been used in traditional healing systems (e.g. traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and many others) for centuries, sometimes millennia. This should offer comfort and security for their incorporation into conventional Western models of healthcare, health promotion, disease prevention, and even disease treatment. However, given the patterns of use of these ingredients — especially when available as dietary supplements — there are now circumstances in which they are used chronically when their traditional use called for acute symptom management, or when their application is completely different from anything that commended their use in traditional healing.

Coupled with this are the other challenges that exist in this field: the lack of information about mechanism of action for many herbal products; the array of regulatory authorities that govern the marketing of herbal products around the world; the variability in manufacture of products; and the paucity of validated analytical methods, reference materials and standards.

A book that attempts to address these issues should be celebrated, not only because of the challenges that it confronts, but also because of the promise that some herbal products can offer, e.g. in health promotion, disease prevention and disease management. This book represents collaboration between many specialists from very different disciplines. In addition, it offers the reader a comprehensive look at many aspects of the roles that these ingredients can play in human health.

From legislative mandates to biochemistry, from functional foods to industrial applications, this book covers many topics crucial to understanding both the promise and the challenge associated with dietary supplements of plant origin.

Paul M. Coates, Ph.D. Director, Office of Dietary Supplements National Institutes of Health Bethesda, Maryland 20892-2086, USA

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