Herbal Adulteration - Dangerous, and Timely!
We all like to think that when we buy a product at the store we are getting what it says on the package. Are there not laws on the books that protect the consumer?
As with most things in the supplement industry, consumers get the short end of the stick. Today we focus on the games some raw materials suppliers play to improve their margins, and the blind eye some manufacturers turn for theirs.
Adulteration. This is not when married herbs cheat on their significant others. It’s when a substance (adulterant) is found where it doesn’t belong. Usually, it’s there illegally.
Adulteration goes beyond mislabeling or false claims we preach about. This isn’t the difference between whole food and not whole food or using the wrong name for a probiotic strain. In the natural products world, adulteration is a strategy to deceive - the culmination of corner-cutting - with eyes focused solely on the dollar.
It’s also different than the normal herbal deception perpetrated by a manufacturer. You know, how you need 500mg of standardized root extract and they give you 500mg of the whole plant (usually one that’s been dead for some time). Sometimes adulteration can happen inadvertently - when herbs are cultivated, similar looking plants could accidentally be harvested together. In reality, adulteration is normally a case of a raw material supplier trying to pull one over on manufacturers.
There are a bunch of ways a raw material supplier can adulterate herbal products. Let’s explore, shall we?
Visual Slight of Hand
Bilberry is an herb that many people take for eye health. It’s expensive. If there was a way we could make our raw material look like the good stuff, we could save money. Most manufacturers aren’t checking thoroughly anyway. The FDA doesn’t have the resources to watch over all of it. (For those at home playing along – that was 4 “visual” puns in a single paragraph)
So how can we take $400+ per pound raw material and make it more like $80-100 per pound?
The first way is to color it; dye an inferior raw material with Red #2. Many people are unfamiliar with Red #2. That’s because it was banned in 1976 by the FDA because of its carcinogenic effects in rats. It has not been banned by the European Food Safety Union Authority, but it is still illegal in the US. Yet it is still used in many bilberry supplements to make them appear that nice purple bilberry color.
Turmeric has become the hottest supplement. This means that there is someone trying to make it cheaper. The herb has basically become a victim of its own success. They do the bowtie on a pig routine and dye their substandard product to turmeric’s beautiful orange color. “Has your old, oxidized turmeric lost its wonderful glow? Go to Acme Raw materials, where we’ll use malachite yellow to make it look just like new.” Problem is - malachite yellow is a banned substance.
What about if you really want to make lots of money? Don’t add any active ingredient at all. Many Chinese raw material suppliers are selling “bilberry” that is just a blend of charcoal, black rice, and black soybean hulls. When mixed, you have yourself a nice powder with a similar consistency to bilberry.
Before you know it, your local health food store is selling these visually similar but almost completely inactive pills to you as authentic. Manufacturers don’t know what to test or don’t want to test. How are individual retailers and their employees going to know?
Grapefruit seed extract is a popular supplement taken as an anti-microbial. Whether or not it actually works (mostly it doesn’t) is for another rant. Despite that, people buy lots and lots of it.
Unfortunately, this product frequently comes with unwanted friends. What’s really in that supplement?
- Triclosan, a commonly used antibacterial agent. Not found in actual grapefruits.
- Methyl and propyl parabens, preservatives that have been linked to increased risks of breast cancer. Not found in actual grapefruit.
- Benzethonium Chloride, Benzalkonium Chloride, Cetrimonium Bromide, Decyltrimethyl- Ammonium Chloride. Not found in actual grapefruit.
Why are these not-grapefruit-compounds in a grapefruit seed extract? It currently is an unknown, but they are probably leftovers from some industrial manufacturing process.
Spiking: With A Substitute
So what if a company is actually testing? “Great, now we’ll know we’re getting a good product – they’re testing!” Wait, that’s not good enough?
Here’s the next trick. Let’s figure out what the company is testing for to determine “quality” and increase that number artificially. We can make garbage product look like a potent herb.
Grape Seed (not grapefruit) Extract is a very popular, well-researched supplement but it is very expensive to produce. This product is now starting to be adulterated with peanut skins. Peanut skins have compounds and markers similar to what we’re looking for in Grape Seed Extract.
Of course, they pick the extremely dangerous, life-threatening option of peanuts! Peanut allergies are on the rise. The peanut content is not disclosed (because no one knows it’s there except the raw materials supplier). Suppose someone with a peanut allergy takes it. How would a patient, family member, or physician possibly know what caused that allergy?
This is extremely irresponsible. It highlights the lack of concern for health and the focus on profits.
Spiking: With An Active Ingredient
We don’t have to always see adulteration with potentially hazardous chemicals.
Curcumin is one of the constituents found in turmeric. Most manufacturers erroneously look to see which supplement has the most curcumin when deciding which ingredient is best. Raw material suppliers have figured out that companies are simply testing the curcumin content and not the full herb, and have started spiking the products with synthetic curcumin. This curcumin is being made from petroleum, which isn’t a plant despite how great the brand claims their turmeric to be.
Another source of adulteration is during the extraction process. Back to turmeric... Turmeric is a messy, sticky herb so companies are always looking for ways to make extraction easier. One (illegal) way is to use ethylene dichloride. This is a class one solvent that is banned for use in food products. Since most companies don’t test their raw materials properly the suppliers know they can get away with using it. Other suppliers use acetone (yup the stuff found in nail polish remover) and hexane to extract it. Do you really want those things in your supplement?
Black cohosh is a very popular herb that many women take for their change of life. It is also becoming more and more expensive to get good quality raw material. So, of course, companies must find a way to reduce their costs. Most black cohosh is actually substituted with a Chinese species of the herb that looks similar to black cohosh. These substituted herbs are quite harmful to the liver. The FDA acted, stating that black cohosh could be liver toxic. But it’s not the black cohosh, it’s the adulterated products that are causing the problems and dangers.
Another Day, Another Major Revelation. Any Changes?
While we could go through pretty much every herb and detail the possible adulterants, this should paint a very good idea of the wild west nature of the herbal products industry.
If manufacturers aren’t properly verifying the ingredients from their raw materials suppliers, anything from placebo (rice) to harmful or even banned compounds could be found in herbal products.
Reading a certificate of analysis or report from the materials supplier isn’t enough. We’ve outlined how a report that shows curcumin activity, for example, doesn’t constitute a quality turmeric product.
Over the years, the different adulterants in this supplement have changed, suggesting that companies have been changing which adulterants they use, in order to stay one step ahead of the testing methods. It’s whack-a-mole.
Good product and appropriate testing cost money. Doing the right thing shouldn’t be conflated with “costs cutting into our margins”.
This is where we hold the “experts” feet to the fire. The system allows - almost permits adulteration. How many times over an average month do we hear new customers say “But my [doctor, expert, consultant, the company] say it’s good stuff and I trust them.”
You CAN trust people with their intentions. We believe people mean well but the devil is in the details. They don’t know what questions to ask. They don’t know how to truly define quality. They don’t know common “tricks” in the manufacturing and supply process to be conscious of. They are unfamiliar with the evidence, so how could they know what forms and doses are required to actually work?
This is why we are so passionate about our standards. This is why we start there, creating these essential lists, and shop for brands that match these rigorous criteria. This is why the standards are dynamic; they change and adapt to new data. This is why brands come and go in our store.
This is where the natural fallacy is at it’s worse. Some stay away from “harsh pharmaceuticals” in traditional medicine. Yet a high percentage of natural products could be and have been shown to contain much more dangerous
Adulteration of foods, spices, and supplements has been going on for a very long time. Anytime there is a quick buck to be made, someone will always jump at the chance.
Let me paint a scenario for you. Please read it twice, as it is crucial to the themes we present on a daily basis.
Your loved one is sick and needs an antibiotic like Amoxicillin. There are 5 manufacturers of Amoxicillin. What if 2 of those 5 are fake? What if they have harmful, allergenic compounds in them that NO ONE is aware could be there?
We’d lose our minds. We’d be rioting in the streets, demanding change. It’s Russian Roulette with our well being.
Why can an entire industry, especially billing itself as “wellness”, be able to operate this way then?
Our Woodstock Vitamins Herbs are Vitality Approved, so you can be sure that you're getting quality products: pure, potent, and consistent batch to batch.
Just trying to keep it real...
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth