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The Botanical Adulterants Programme

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by Jade Mitchell-Ross -

The global marketplace has seen an increase in adulterated botanical raw ingredients that are either inauthentic, or diluted with cheaper ingredients, without being properly labelled. Mark Blumenthal, Executive Director of the American Botanical Council (ABC) and Director of the Botanical Adulterants Programme, says one of the hallmarks of adulteration is concealment—if companies were transparent about their ingredients, it would not be adulteration by definition.

Blumenthal explains the Botanical Adulterants Programme is concerned some of the raw materials in consumer products may be adulterated to the economic benefit of the seller at the economic detriment of the buyer. There is also the potential health detriment of the consumer to consider; products that contain some of these adulterated materials may not have the activity expected by the consumer and in some cases, these materials may be toxic. Fortunately, Blumenthal is keen to point out, most of the adulteration the Programme has discovered is of an economic nature, and less of a safety concern.

Black cohosh, a Native American traditional plant used to treat menopause symptoms, is often adulterated, according to ABC. As the extract becomes more popular, some products are formulated using Chinese herbs instead, which although from the same genus of Actaea, have no relationship to black cohosh. Bilberry is another example and potentially the most commonly adulted botanical because of the relative cost of the extract—an economically-motivated adulteration, as Blumenthal calls it. The more expensive a botanical may be, the more motivation there is to adulterate. In this example, 100 kg of raw bilberries are required to produce 1 kg of bilberry extract: to make their extract go further, companies may mix it with charcoal and synthetic food dyes which can even fool some of the analytical quality control testing procedures.

Blumenthal explains these laboratory analytical methods are no longer relevant or appropriate because adulteration in today’s market has changed. One of the Programme’s aims is to provide guidance on quality control testing to help finished product manufacturers to ensure their ingredients are authentic. The Programme offers peer-reviewed Laboratory Guidance Documents, summarising and evaluating all published laboratory methods on specific botanicals and their extracts.

The Botanical Adulterants Programme is calling for greater transparency in the entire botanical supply chain; manufacturers buying raw materials need to investigate the traceability of the ingredients as part of their qualification and research process necessary for good best practices.