07/11/2016 11:49 AM IST | Updated 20/11/2016 9:20 AM IST

Ginkgo Biloba: Herbal Memory Booster Or Carcinogen?

Dorling Kindersley
Ginkgo biloba stem with leaves, pills in a jar, and some next to the jar.

When I think of supplements, the first picture in my head is a huge bodybuilder. Then I remember that there are so many different types of supplements in the market these days. There are supplements to lose weight, gain weight, build muscle. There is also a host of multivitamins, minerals, etc. And then there are supplements for boosting memory, increasing IQ, and what not. Even certain packaged food products claim to be fortified with added minerals, etc. Don't get me wrong, many of these supplements are essential, especially because our diets tend to be deficient in micro-nutrients. I am deficient in Vitamin D and take a supplement to keep my levels up. Yet, not all supplements are made equal and some are more controversial than others.

Ginkgo biloba (often known as just ginkgo) supplements are well known and easily available. Extracts of the ginkgo biloba tree are used as an herbal remedy and dietary supplement, purported to improve memory and brain function. One article noted that studies have shown that ginkgo extracts show therapeutic effects in people with diseases such as Alzheimer's, failing memory, age-related dementia, etc. Another study found a possible link between treatment with ginkgo biloba, and enhanced cognitive function in people suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

While there isn't a conclusive body of research on the carcinogenicity of ginkgo biloba, we should be cautious in consuming it until more studies are conducted.

However, we should perhaps think twice before popping ginkgo supplements. A study conducted by the United States National Toxicology Program (NTP) in 2013 on the effects of ginkgo biloba on rats and mice concluded that it caused cancer of the thyroid in male/female rats, and male mice. It was also linked to cancer of the liver in male and female mice.

After the NTP report came out, the New York Times published an article, in which it noted that the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had already banned ginkgo biloba from food and beverages, and has repeatedly told drink manufacturers to remove it from their products. The FDA has even warned a company, Stewart Brothers, that their drinks were adulterated with ginkgo, and in June 2013, the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) wrote to the FDA, requesting it to ensure that products containing ginkgo were removed from the market.

With so much controversy surrounding ginkgo in the US, I wondered whether there was any restriction on its use in India. A simple Google search for "ginkgo biloba India" was enough to find out that not only do there appear to be no restrictions on its use, supplements containing it appear to be fairly widely marketed in India. Given the NTP report, I feel that this is definitely a cause for concern.

While there isn't a conclusive body of research on the carcinogenicity of ginkgo biloba, I believe that we should be cautious in consuming it until more studies are conducted. I also urge the Food and Health Ministries, along with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), to commission research, especially since ginkgo supplements appear to be quite popular in India.

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