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Buyer Beware! These Are 9 Commonly Tampered Health Supplements

You might not be aware, but counterfeit health supplements exist! Find out which herbal supplements often contain fake ingredients.

Pills and supplements coming out of a bottle strewn against a blue background with a gloved hand holding a magnifying glass in the foreground.

Globally and in Malaysia, health supplements are perceived as safe because of their “naturally derived” ingredients. But, in most countries, manufacturers aren’t required to prove that what’s in the bottle is what is claimed on the label.

A 2019 review published in the Frontiers of Pharmacology found that 27% of global health supplements were adulterated. In the same study, Malaysia came in fifth among nine countries with the highest rates of adulteration in their commercial herbal products.

Here’s a look at nine well-known herbal health supplements commonly faked so you know what to look out for.

1. Ginkgo Biloba 

Ginkgo biloba (yin xing ye, 银杏叶) is a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) herb known to help improve memory and prevent neurogenerative disease. However, a 2013 investigation found that ginkgo biloba supplements sold at a discount hypermarket in the US were made of powdered radish, wheat, and houseplants.

Some ginkgo biloba health supplements even contain black walnut. Experts believe it’s possible that walnut leaves and plant parts were accidentally harvested with the herb. This could prove very harmful for those with nut allergies.

2. St. John’s Wort 

St. John’s wort is popular because it can potentially ease the symptoms of mild depression. A 2013 investigation reported by The New York Times discovered that some of these supplements didn’t contain the herb. Instead, the pills were made of other ingredients like rice or Alexandrian senna, a strong laxative. Not only would those taking them see little to no health benefits, but they could also be harmed.   

3. Ginseng

Fresh Korean ginseng roots on grassy ground.
Ginseng supplements sold in powder form by fraudulent sellers may be filled with rice powder instead.

A popular herb for vitality, ginseng (ren shen, 人参) health supplements are unfortunately not spared from adulteration. A 2016 study found that 28% of ginseng examined had synthetic prescription drugs added without being disclosed. The stems, leaves, and flowers are sometimes used instead of the root because they are cheaper. In other cases, there’s no trace of ginseng in the supplements because garlic and rice powder are used. 

4. Echinacea 

This herb is often used to fight the common cold and upper respiratory infections. Because COVID is now part of our new normal, you may have seen echinacea health supplements stocked on the shelves of your local health food store.

The same 2013 study that exposed adulterated ginkgo biloba and St. John’s wort supplements also found that some bottles of echinacea contain ground-up bitter weed. Instead of finding relief from your cold symptoms, you may develop a rash, nausea, and flatulence.

5. Saw Palmetto 

Saw palmetto extract is believed to be good for prostate health. Oil extracted from saw palmetto berries usually come in capsules, yet many bottles of saw palmetto only contain vegetable oil. Some manufacturers even use sophisticated techniques to mimic the fatty acid composition of saw palmetto so that the fraudulent ingredients won’t be detected. 

6. Turmeric

Turmeric in fresh form on a wooden table and in powdered form on a wooden spoon.
Some turmeric supplements in powdered forms could contain dyes.

Turmeric is a popular health supplement marketed for its anti-inflammatory properties. It’s been used as a spice and medicinal food for a long time in many parts of Asia. If you want to consume it in a powdered rather than fresh-root form, be careful.

Turmeric supplements from Bangladesh, for example, were found to be contaminated with yellow dyes. And the worst part? Some of these dyes contained lead, a heavy metal toxic to humans.

7. Garlic 

Usually taken in the form of oil capsules, garlic helps lower cholesterol levels. Unfortunately, with garlic prices steadily rising, garlic oil gets tampered with. An analytical study in 2017 found that only one of four garlic oil products claiming to be 100% pure was true to their word. Two of the four products didn’t even have plant derivatives. 

8. Milkvetch root  

Huang qi (黄芪) or milkvetch root is used in TCM for upper respiratory illnesses, chronic fatigue, kidney disease, and other conditions. Increasing demand for this root has resulted in excessive exploitation of the wild stock, including adulteration for economic gain.

In a recent quality control study, scientists found that many milkvetch root health supplements contain little of the active ingredient. Instead, these products had unsafe levels of pesticide residue, sometimes even mixed with the seed of the plant. 

9. Medicinal mushrooms

Four ceramic spoons containing different mushroom powders.
Some mushroom supplements are mostly the grain it grew on rather than the actual fruiting body of the fungus.

Mushrooms as medicinal food have skyrocketed in popularity, partly due to the trend of using fungi to combat stress. The high demand for mushrooms like ling zhi (灵芝), cordyceps, lion’s mane, and others makes these supplements susceptible to adulteration. Some “mushroom” supplements contain no fruit bodies, where the nutrients are. Instead, they are mostly myceliated grain, the part the mushroom grew on. 

To steer clear of these counterfeit health supplements, it’s best to consult licensed and trained TCM practitioners. They would recommend and use only actual herbs from trusted brands and suppliers. 

This is an adaptation of an article, “6 Commonly Adulterated Supplements”, which first appeared on the Eu Yan Sang website.

References

  1. Frontiers in Pharmacology. 2019. The DNA-Based Authentication of Commercial Herbal Products Reveals Their Globally Widespread Adulteration. [online] Available at: <https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphar.2019.01227/full> [Accessed 15 November 2022]
  2. BMC Medicine. 2013. DNA barcoding detects contamination and substitution in North American herbal products. [online] Available at: <https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1741-7015-11-222> [Accessed 15 November 2022]
  3. New York Times. 2015. New York Attorney General Targets Supplements at Major Retailers. [online] Available at: <https://archive.nytimes.com/well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/03/new-york-attorney-general-targets-supplements-at-major-retailers/> [Accessed 15 November 2022]
  4. New York Times. 2013. Herbal Supplements Are Often Not What They Seem. [online] Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/05/science/herbal-supplements-are-often-not-what-they-seem.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0> [Accessed 15 November 2022]
  5. Frontiers in Pharmacology. 2021. A Review of Authenticity and Authentication of Commercial Ginseng Herbal Medicines and Food Supplements. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7832030/> [Accessed 15 November 2022]
  6. Washington Post. 2019. Some turmeric, wellness potion of the moment, may owe its yellow color to lead contamination, a study says. [online] Available at: <https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/09/28/turmeric-wellness-potion-moment-may-owe-its-yellow-color-lead-contamination-study-says/> [Accessed 15 November 2022
  7. Nutraceuticals World. 2017. Quality Assurance Testing: Is your Garlic Oil Natural? [online] Available at: <https://www.nutraceuticalsworld.com/blog/blogs-and-guest-articles/2017-11-08/quality-assurance-testing-is-your-garlic-oil-natural/> [Accessed 15 November 2022]
  8. Frontiers in Pharmacology. 2020. Quality Control of Radix Astragali (The Root of Astragalus membranaceus mongholicus) Along Its Value Chains. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7746871/> [Accessed 15 November 2022]
  9. Nutrition Insight. 2019. Detecting adulteration: American Botanical Council fights saw palmetto fraud with new guidance. [online] Available at: <https://www.nutritioninsight.com/news/detecting-adulteration-american-botanical-council-fights-saw-palmetto-fraud-with-new-guidance.html> [Accessed 15 November 2022]

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