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Did You Just Take a Fake? Botanical Adulteration in Dietary Supplements
June 13th 2022

Did You Just Take a Fake? Botanical Adulteration in Dietary Supplements

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By Todd E. Napolitano and Walter Brandl

In the dietary supplements world, botanicals play a vital role. In addition to demanding clean, natural products that promote health and wellbeing, scrutinizing consumers expect their supplements to function as food, their food to function as supplements, and botanicals are often the adaptogenic lynchpin. And while demand for botanicals has waned a bit post-Covid and has been somewhat overshadowed by the boom in pre/pro/post-biotics, most signs indicate that botanicals are as much a part of dietary supplements as dietary supplements are part of our everyday lives.

Ah, but here’s the rub. It seems as soon as a botanical ingredient gets hot, spiking consumer demand, adulteration soon follows. Indeed, adulteration is the dark specter looming in the health and wellness industry that otherwise depends on efficacy and transparency. The simple fact is this—adulterated botanical ingredients are a long-standing problem that extends beyond dietary supplements to food, medication, cosmetics, and more. Specific to dietary supplements, it follows that growing demand for botanical ingredients will lead directly to a greater incidence of adulteration. This should be a significant concern to importers, ingredient suppliers, finished goods manufacturers, and, ultimately, consumers.

According to Nutrition Business Journal, about a third of U.S. supplement sales are categorized as “Herbs & Botanicals,” although the trend is downward 5-10%. Nevertheless, as noted previously, botanical usage is steadily expanding beyond supplements into a variety of functional foods, thus making adulteration a concern for us all. To understand what can be done to manage this growing dilemma, we must first look at the underlying causes and incentives and then explore some methods of detection.

Daily, we hear how Covid put extreme pressure on supply chains. Well, the supplement world got hit with a double whammy. Not only did Covid impact supply logistics, it also spurred tremendous growth in supplements for immunity, stress, and general wellness. This resulted in both a supply-side bottleneck as well as a massive spike in demand. In other words, a prime environment for adulteration and straight-up fraud.

Of course, adulteration is part of the realities of the supply chain… cross-contamination, misidentification of species, general lack of knowledge, constraints on scalability, and so on. Then, there is adulteration and fraud due to sheer profit motive, a far more dubious and serious issue. Again, when demand far outstrips supply, the environment is ripe for adulteration and fraud. And, the problem is getting worse.

In its most simple form adulteration for economic gain may involve simply cutting the active ingredient with an inexpensive “filler” material. All that is needed is a material with a similar texture or color as the active. This may be an alternate, more readily available plant or the actual desired species from which the active components extracted previously have already been extracted. This is like loading a gun with a round that’s already been fired. Additionally, out-of-date or spent herbal material may be doctored with dyes to make it appear fresh and perhaps more potent. More elaborate adulteration schemes involve the addition of synthetic chemicals to mirror the expected chemical profile or the addition of pharmaceutical drugs to mimic the efficacy of otherwise ineffective material. Examples of this are the use of glucophages such as metformin in herbal blood sugar treatments and the use of sildenafil or tadalafil for male potency remedies. Ironically, this sort of adulteration produces products that actually work because they include pharmaceuticals. Nevertheless, this is adulteration, misrepresentation, and potentially very dangerous for unwitting consumers.

Obviously, intentional, profit-based adulteration must be combated. But how?

At Mérieux NutriSciences, we approach transparency, traceability, and authenticity using a multi-faceted, systematic approach built upon verification, surveillance, and risk mitigation. Programs incorporating supply-chain audits, training, and consulting, for example, help our clients build out robust surveillance platforms. Expert labeling and regulatory compliance reviews provide clients with several risk-mitigation tools including Amazon compliance. Where the rubber meets the road, however, is on the testing level, the level of scientific verification.

Authenticity testing of botanical materials may involve at least three types of approaches: Chemical profiling or fingerprinting; macroscopic and/or microscopic physical examination; and DNA molecular-based approaches. Taken as a whole, scientific testing provides accurate, reliable, and perhaps most important, actionable information. This is where the battle lines are drawn.

Chemical profiling can be performed through mass spectrometric techniques (GC-MS or LC-MS), conventional High-Performance Liquid Chromatographic (HPLC) techniques, and thin-layer chromatography performed either manually (TLC) or, more commonly now, in automated High-Performance Thin Layer Chromatography (HPTLC). These techniques offer a profile of marker compounds characteristic of the product in question and can also flag the presence of unexpected components that may indicate adulteration. The advantage of these techniques is that they can give specific ratios of marker compounds that may be indicative of desired species or even desired parts of the plant. For example, root material may contain a different chemical profile than foliage. FT-IR and NMR may also be incorporated into a verification protocol depending on the substance and matrix involved.

Physical examination may involve microscopic and additional techniques such as analyzing how the material behaves during staining or when combined with other reagents. Physical examination has limitations, however. Most notably, this technique requires a relatively unprocessed sample for examination.  In instances where this is not possible, alternate methods are required.

As the demand for more sensitive and versatile analysis has grown, so too has the role of DNA-based methods, especially Next Generation Sequencing or metabarcoding. At Mérieux NutriSciences, we use NGS and metabarcoding to genetically identify compounds. This is a powerful DNA-based tool that enables us to detect the presence of DNA from desired species while also detecting the presence of any undesired species that may present as an adulterant. As with physical examination, metabarcoding works best on the less-processed products because DNA is very sensitive. Processes involving heating, refining, and extracting using solvents such as alcohols may destroy or significantly reduce any viable DNA material available for analysis.

As expected, these techniques all have their characteristic strengths and weaknesses. In reality, they must be used in concert to assure an authentic, quality product. For example, chemical “fingerprinting” is easily tricked or manipulated by the inclusion of certain masking compounds, etc. Similarly, DNA-based analysis, although incredibly sensitive, doesn’t differentiate between different parts of a plant. A plant leaf, or root with little or no value may be substituted for the same plant’s leaf which offers the valuable compounds. The DNA would identify the plant but that’s it.

This is why we incorporate a “platform” approach at Mérieux NutriSciences. Indeed, authenticity testing must wield a multi-faceted approach because adulteration can be very diverse and challenging. Thus, it is important to test for what should and should not be present in your dietary supplement. Often a combination of approaches is required. Suffice to say that authenticity testing, in addition to the technical aspects, requires a strong understanding of the product, the market conditions motivating adulteration, and the potential options available to the myriad fraudsters at play in the marketplace. A rigorous platform of verification, surveillance, and risk mitigation will help protect suppliers, manufacturers, and consumers as well as protect the integrity of an industry that plays a growing role in our overall health and wellness.

Examples of Commonly Adulterated Botanicals

Elderberry

Sales of Elderberry were already on the rise pre-COVID. Adulteration typically involves the substitution of Elderberry with more readily available materials such as blueberry, mulberry, and bilberry as well as artificial colors.

Cranberry

Often adulterated with fillers such as grapeseeds and peanut skins, as well as substitution with alternate species such as Mulberry.

Black Cohosh

We see adulteration with less expensive, closely related species. Lesser species are not therapeutically effective and may be toxic..

Saw Palmetto

Often adulterated with a combination of inexpensive palm oil colored with carotenoids.

Ginseng

A popular energy and enhancement supplement, ginseng is often adulterated with pharmaceutical drugs, substituted with related and unrelated species, and/or spent (extracted) base material.

Hoodia

Adulterated almost right out of the marketplace primarily with Prickly Pear and less effective Hoodia species. In fact, at one point the adulteration rate was so high, that sales were higher than the actual global production of authentic Hoodia putting it in the same dubious category as Manuka and other medicinal kinds of honey with similar sales-to-production discrepancies.

Bilberry

Adulterated with less expensive, similarly colored berry extracts and synthetic dyes.

Other popular botanicals prone to heavy adulteration include turmeric, St. John’s wort, tea tree oil, and a host of other hot supplement ingredients. For a very deep dive into botanical adulteration across industries, see the American Botanical Counsil archive of scientific research including a repository of analytical methods by compound.


Learn more about how Mérieux NutriSciences Expert Services can help you prevent botanical adulteration.

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