Number 27
July/August 2000

Herbs in this issue:


Siberian ginseng



A Note From Dr. Leung

The Lack of Quality Control in Herbal Information

      This is the title of a letter to the editor by a colleague, Dr. Dennis Awang of MediPlant Consulting Services, published 3 years ago in the Journal of Herbs, Spices & Medicinal Plants [Vol. 5(1) 1997, pp. 3-6].  I am quoting here word-for-word the first 3 paragraphs of his letter:

       “The apparent current explosion of interest and commercial activity in the area of herbal products has evidently been the stimulus for the spate of media offerings on the validity, safety, and regulations regarding these materials.  Medical and other publications widely regarded as reliably “scientific” have weighed in with review, monographic, and critical articles on specific medicinal plants and the general status of herbal medicines.

     Most distressingly, much of the material emanating from the professional medical establishment is inaccurate and misleading, a “condition” that historically has been damaging to the reputation of quite innocuous and potentially beneficial plants such as chamomile (anaphylaxis)(1) and ginseng (Ginseng Abuse Syndrome and blatant taxonomic confusion)(6,9,13).


Dr. Leung is author of the Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics (Wiley-Interscience), which was published in 1980 and revised in 1996. He is also creator of PHYTOMED, a prototype computer database on Chinese herbal medicine developed under contract with the National Cancer Institute.


Lack of care in the assessment of plant material of particular purported identity, implicated in adverse health effects, has further enlarged the culpability of the medical community (9,11).

         To me, however, the literature from academic and professional pharmacy sources, as well as from other presumably qualified scientific authors, is also often unreliable and occasionally downright false.  Those in the herbal community engaged in both educational and promotional activities sometimes perpetuate misinformation, because of inattention or inability to make an authoritative scientific evaluation.  Regulatory authorities, especially in North America, are similarly handicapped.” 

I can’t agree more with Dr. Awang’s assessment which was true then and is also true now.  As an illustration, Dr. Awang goes on to document the misinformation on eleuthero (Siberian ginseng) published in recent years in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA.), Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ.), and The Lawrence Review of Natural Products.  The last one is a publication widely trusted and quoted by the pharmacy community.  But much of the chemical information in it is false.  For example, it asserts (through anonymous authors) that, I quote, “The eleutherosides, designated A-M, are generally considered to be similar in chemical structure to the ginseng saponins (panaxosides).  While some eleutherosides share common properties with panaxosides, others appear to be structurally unrelated.”  The fact is that the chemical compositions of eleuthero (Siberian ginseng) and ginseng (Asian or American) have little in common.  Unlike ginsenosides (archaically, “panaxosides”) which are glycosides of specific triterpenes (damarane and oleanane types), the glycosides of eleutherosides are not a homogeneous class of chemical compounds.  Instead, they are glycosides of numerous classes of widely different chemical structures (sterols, phenylpropanoids, coumarins, lignans, triterpenes, etc.).  Furthermore, it claims that, “Eleutherococcus shares many of the constituents of P. ginseng.  The exact composition, however, differs considerably and eleutherococcus leaves contain saponins normally found in ginseng roots.  The fact is that eleuthero is not Panax ginseng and does not share many of the latter’s constituents, unless of course if you consider water, cellulose, sugars, amino acids, lignin, minerals (calcium, potassium, sodium, etc.), sterols, flavonoids, and other common nutrients as the “many” components they share.  Also, eleuthero leaves DON’T contain saponins (ginsenosides) normally found in ginseng roots! 

To those who are not involved in studying natural medicines, I may sound like I am splitting hairs.  But all this type of misinformation adds up.  At a time when the public is increasingly leaning towards natural medicines and our government is starting to fund the exploration of the validity of these medicines, publications like the above do more harm than good.  And these are supposedly written by trained professionals with advanced degrees in pharmacy and medicine!  Just consider the rest of the voluminous literature disseminated by non-technical “experts!”  If our government supports research, such as clinical trials, without at the same time supporting the clean-up of such a polluted information pool, sooner or later the following scenario will happen. Without correct and credible information, researchers do not have a solid scientific base on which to perform their investigations and their results will not be reproducible.  Those who are genuinely interested in these natural medicines but who don’t have the resources or access to genuine good information will be very disappointed in not obtaining the results they expect.  Of course, our tax dollars would have been wasted, due to no fault of these researchers who have believed in the published “data” by their colleagues.  At the other end of the spectrum are certain elements of the medical and pharmaceutical establishment who have a deep interest in seeing that these natural medicines “don’t work.”  They would be the first ones to tell us, “I told you so.” 

As I have repeatedly stressed in previous issues of this Newsletter, we need to clean up the “pollution” in herbal information, much of which is “industrial,” though with a sizable amount also generated by academia.  The source of funding has to come from the government because it is highly unlikely any commercial outfits would fund a project that will cancel out their efforts in producing and maintaining information favorable to their marketing efforts.  Science is not politics.  Unlike political statements, scientific statements/truths don’t arbitrarily change.  In scientific truth, there is no compromise.  If we are too complacent and timid (or nice) to speak out, we allow ignorance and misinformation to proliferate.  The time will come when we will no longer know what is scientific truth and what is misinformation or marketing spiel.  In the botanical medicine field, I think we are almost, if not already, there.  And, as if the Lawrence Review has not disseminated enough misinformation to pharmacy and medical professionals, now another new source of false information has just appeared which makes the Lawrence Review look like the source of the ultimate truth.  I am referring to the newly published “The Complete Guide to Herbal Medicines.”  This reference guide has been compiled by 2 PharmD’s with the help of 73 contributors and consultants, 50 of whom are also PharmD’s, and the remaining composed of MD’s, PhD’s, RPh’s, and RN’s, all professionals!  Yet one does not have to make a serious effort to discover misinformation or false statements; they jump out at you!  A case in point, under the wild yam entry, there is this outrageous statement: “Wild yam also contains a steroid hormone called dihydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), which may be useful in treating various diseases.”  The fact:  Wild yam does NOT contain DHEA.  It DOES, however, contain steroids such as diosgenin and others which can be converted to steroid hormones (e.g., DHEA) by microbial transformation and/or chemical conversion or synthesis.  If any of the yams contained DHEA, progesterone, or other steroid hormones, Synthex (the company that practically revolutionized the steroid hormone industry) would not have existed.  In the next issue, I will give more such examples from this “complete guide.”  The upsetting thing is why a major publisher publishes such a guide without having its manuscript first reviewed by qualified experts.  Could this publisher have been intimidated by the sheer number of professionals listed as “contributors and consultants”?  There is no doubt they ARE professionals.  It’s just that they are NOT qualified to evaluate botanicals without the proper training.  It is ironic that our pharmacy schools over the past 3 decades have been gradually eliminating pharmacognosy from their curriculum and replacing it with some sort of chemistry (e.g., medicinal chemistry or natural product chemistry).  Their graduates are now caught in a bind.  They have to deal with the revived interest in natural drugs but have not received the proper training to do so.  Even in a handful of pharmacy schools that still have departments of pharmacognosy, few of their professors possess the training and experience in classical pharmacognosy to be able to evaluate herbal drugs because their expertise lies mainly in the chemistry and biochemistry of natural products, and much of that expertise has no practical relevance when herbal supplements are concerned.  I think this has led to the publication of such books as the “Complete Guide” by PharmD’s who don’t have the training and knowledge in traditional pharmacognosy.  The knowledge in this field is now largely retained by people in the industry and by a handful of experts who still hold positions in academia.  Most of the pharmacognosists in industry come from foreign universities who have received traditional pharmacognosy training.  It’s time that American trained pharmacy professionals realized their deficiency and sought collaboration with trained pharmacognosists either in industry or in academia when working on herbal products.  Only by doing so will authors or potential experts avoid being guilty of ignorance and disseminating false information.


Siberian ginseng – a pulse of the industry?

        “Officially” and “on record,” the herbal industry supposedly has improved tremendously in terms of product quality.  But has it?  When I first got into this business over 25 years ago, there were only a handful of major companies engaged in the extraction and supply of botanicals to primarily food and drug companies.  There were no such things as herbal “supplements” then.  The botanical industry, as it was so called, supplied either flavoring ingredients (licorice, chamomile, fenugreek, rose hip, carob, ginger, quassia, tamarind, etc.) or drug ingredients (ipecac, senna, drug aloe, benzoin, blackberry bark, cascara, podophyllum, goldenseal, black cohosh, valerian, cinchona, ephedra, passion flower, etc.) to both the food and drug industries.  Many of the drug ingredients (including aloe, cascara, senna, cinchona, valerian, and passion flower) were also used as flavoring agents.  Due to the lack of meaningful quality standards, adulteration of botanicals and their extracts was quite common.  A standards committee composed of industrial and academic experts, called the Botanical Codex Committee, of which I was a member, was formed to set quality standards.  It lasted perhaps 2 years and then just faded without fanfare.  No standards were set.  Now, 25 years later, a new and much expanded industry is again trying to set quality standards.  There are now different groups each doing its own thing.  The climate is different from before, but the end objective is purportedly still the same:  to ensure that genuine and good-quality herbs are used in herbal products (“supplements”).  Now that standardization of markers/actives has become a common quality-control tool, one would think that the task should be simple.  But it is not so!  There is increasing evidence that this chemical standardization is being used to adulterate extracts and products.  Numerous standard and information monographs of herbs have appeared, result of hard work by different organizations.  They do look good on paper.  But how many companies actually know how to apply the available information correctly and appropriately to ensure that the herbal ingredients they use are genuine and of decent quality?  I am very curious to know.  If you know of any such company (but not your own), I would appreciate your letting me know.  In the meantime, I have some rather disturbing news for the industry, despite all its efforts in setting quality standards. 

         Siberian ginseng (eleuthero) has been on the North American market for probably over 20 years now.  Until about 12 years ago, no one in North America seemed to know what it looked like, because it always came in the form of either powder or tea-bag cut.  At that time, I was sourcing eleuthero for a client.  After obtaining an authenticated specimen of eleuthero from a colleague in Beijing, I started evaluating samples of “Siberian ginseng” from at least half-a-dozen major domestic suppliers/importers, using microscopy.  Amazingly, only those from 1 importer consistently fit the description of pure eleuthero, hence it was the one I recommended to my client for its eleuthero needs.  The eleuthero from the other importers/suppliers either contained carriers, did not have all the characteristic microscopic features, or was completely different.  In one case, the sample, used by a major contract manufacturer, was nothing I could identify, and did not have a single major feature belonging to eleuthero.  It could have been sawdust of any type of lumber!  Since that time, the supplier of the genuine eleuthero and I have become good friends, and I have recommended him to other quality-conscious companies.  After setting up identification procedures for my client, I have since thought that that was the end of the story.  I would have still believed that eleuthero in North America was no longer a problem, if not for my wife’s desire to buy an eleuthero product.  I recommended the eleuthero of my former client and asked her to save me a few capsules for microscopic verification.  After she finished with that bottle, for convenience, she bought a bottle of eleuthero from a local store of a well-known chain pharmacy.  Knowing how herbal products are produced, my family does not use any such products other than those we produce or are produced by companies that we work with closely.  To make a long story short, I evaluated them both under the microscope and found that the one from the chain pharmacy was anything but eleuthero while the product from my former client (although possessing certain characteristic features of eleuthero) was mostly adulterated with carriers.  We then bought another bottle of my former client’s brand via mail order and I again evaluated it by microscopy.  At the same time, our lab independently analyzed it using TLC.  To avoid bias, we only compared our results at the end, without communicating during the analytical process.  This time we found the product to have the characteristic microscopic features of eleuthero but it contained certain amounts of carriers, which would be consistent with a product containing both the raw herb and its extract.  This would be fine except that TLC comparison of a methanol extract of the product with methanol extracts of samples of our authenticated eleuthero raw powder, as well as eleuthero whole powdered extracts of known strength, showed the brand product to contain considerably lower amounts of eleuthero than stated on its label!  It appears that the extracts used in the product were either “token” extracts or extracts of the wrong herbs, which did not show chemical components that are characteristic of eleuthero.  This is not surprising, because an unscrupulous supplier could have supplied my former client with dubious extracts, “standardized” to one of numerous irrelevant markers, which lacked the total complement of eleuthero constituents. 

         To add insult to injury, a new “Total Energy” product by a well-known Canadian company is labeled to contain Siberian ginseng root 1:5 extract (Eleutherococcus senticosus) “standardized” to 0.8% ginsenosides!!  It also contains 50 herbal extracts/ingredients!  This is by far one of the worst and most outrageous labeling/promotion efforts I have come across.  This company is the same one that sold a Siberian ginseng product, about 10 years ago, which turned out to be the wrong herb, Periploca sepium!  Some people never learn!  To repeat, Siberian ginseng (eleuthero), despite being called “ginseng,” is not a true ginseng and does not contain ginsenosides.  Could this mistake have been the result of marketers picking up the misinformation from such “authoritative” sources as the Lawrence Review?  Or could the formula have been reviewed by a PharmD who didn’t have the right information at his disposal?  If you think this is bad, just wait till the “Complete Guide” gets it nationwide distribution!  With such confusion in the field, no wonder herbal supplements are increasingly getting a bad rap.  I predict it will get even worse with the current proliferation of misinformation, unless the US and Canadian governments commit serious and genuine efforts in financially supporting its rectification. 

         The above tells me 3 things.  (1)  Crude herbs don’t lie under the microscope because it is virtually impossible to try to fool mother nature by “formulating” an eleuthero “microscopic blend” by blending individual eleuthero microscopic structures (large calcium oxalate rosettes, large bast fibers, small starch grains, etc.).  (2)  While it may not be easy to fool mother nature under the microscope, it is not difficult to spike a powdered crude herb with a chemical marker.  In the case of my former client’s product, the eleuthero from its supplier did contain some eleuthero.  If, however, the QC people were only testing for a chemical marker specified by the supplier, the latter could have easily spiked it with this marker, and the product would then have passed the chemical specs, even though it might contain only minor amounts of genuine eleuthero powder and/or extract.  (3)  If the above 2 brands of eleuthero were made from eleuthero extracts standardized to specific markers, their adulteration would have been difficult to detect unless the manufacturers also use TLC patterning or other additional analytical techniques and not simply analyze for the required markers specified by their supplier.  I strongly believe some companies are pushing for “standardization” for this reason.  I am afraid that, after learning about the ease of detecting adulteration in crude powders with microscopy, more unethical companies will switch to “standardized” extracts for their products.  Then, it will no longer be that easy to verify their identity with microscopy! 

         The above is an example of only 1 herb.  How about dozens of other major ones with ludicrous “standards,” such as astragalus “standardized” to 0.4% 4’-hydroxy-3’-methoxy-isoflavone-7-sug or 4’-hydroxy-3’-methoxy-isoflavone-7-glycoside (Which sugar is it?  I know of no specific glycoside with an ambiguous glycone!) and echinacea standardized to 4% “phenolics!?”  It is obvious who has been benefiting from these kinds of “standards.” 


Ignorance is bliss!

        If one had only known licorice as from Glycyrrhiza glabra, one might not consider the fact that it could be from Glycyrrhiza uralensis or other species.  Depending on the person, chances are he/she would confidently identify it as licorce (the only kind), from Glycyrrhiza glabra.  I come across persons like this frequently, who typically are sincere and considered experts but who don’t read Chinese, nor have been adequately trained in pharmacognosy or classical materia medica.  They probably have been educated by books written by “experts” with similar backgrounds, except that the latter have been in the field longer.  The terms “educated” and “expert” are relative.  If compared to the general American public who still may not know Siberian ginseng is not Asian or American ginseng, then all the above, including myself, are experts.  But these “experts” really don’t know that much when we consider what is there to know in the field of Chinese herbs, and the depth of the knowledge of true Chinese experts.  For example, I am considered an expert in this field because I can convey the Chinese information in English.  However, I feel extremely inadequate and rather ignorant when I compare myself to true Chinese TCM and herbal experts most of whom can’t disseminate their knowledge in English.  Am I a fraud?  Yes and no.  And it is again relative.  If I were a fraud, then many well-known names disseminating information about Chinese herbs in English were frauds as well.  Because most of us are sincere, I prefer to consider ourselves not frauds or experts but rather “specialists,” because all of us specialize in something.  Some of us specialize in perpetuating the English-to-English line of information dissemination while an extremely few, including myself, specialize in the Chinese-to-English line of information dissemination.  None of us are really true “experts,” again relative to those among true Chinese experts worldwide.  We are simply doing what we are capable of in our own areas of “expertise.”  It is thus eye-opening to see a group of these specialists getting together and use their respective “expertise” to set standards for Chinese herbs, taking great pain to differentiate among traditionally interchangeable species.  It is an excellent exercise, producing some very nice-looking monographs.  However, if they are supposed to be used for controlling the identity and quality of herbal products, are they workable?  The “ignoranti” will tell you “no problem.”  But does even a single herbal company in this country have the expertise to do so?  I am very curious to know which one.  As an example, let’s take any respectable astragalus monograph.  Using it, can any company here in the US honestly distinguish a shipment of root of Astragalus membranaceus from that of another traditionally interchangeable Astragalus species?