Most consumers are unaware of the difference in ginseng products available on the market, according to a survey commissioned by Pharmaton Natural Health Products (a subsidiary of Boehringer Ingelheim).
A US law passed in May this year stipulates that labelling cannot identify a product as ginseng "unless it is an herb or herbal ingredient derived from a plant classified within the genus Panax."
Panax ginseng is scientifically proven to enhance energy and promote overall well-being but until recently consumers could also find other products labelled as ginseng, such as Siberian 'ginseng'. According to the law, the Siberian plant contains none of the beneficial compounds, known as ginsenosides, that are found in Panax and that have been extensively tested.
As a result of the new law, any product that claims to be ginseng but is not derived from the genus Panax must be taken off shelves.
"The magnitude of this new law is quite significant for consumers," said Barbara Levine, RD, PhD, director of the Nutrition Information Center at Weill Medical College of Cornell University.
"With the overwhelming array of ginseng supplements on the market, this legislation will decrease confusion, allowing consumers to make more informed decisions regarding the types of products they purchase," Levine said. "This is just one example of how the government is taking a stronger stand in regulating supplements, which should reassure consumers."
The survey conducted by Caravan Opinion Research on behalf of Pharmaton Natural Health Products showed however that when Americans purchase ginseng products, only 6 per cent are familiar with the significant differences between Panax ginseng and Siberian 'ginseng'.
It found that consumers base their ginseng/supplement purchasing decisions on healthcare provider recommendations (53 per cent), personal recommendations from a family member or friend (15 per cent), and the media (6 per cent).
The cultivation of a Panax ginseng crop takes from five to seven years to grow to a harvestable root size. Siberian "ginseng", (Eleutherococcus senticosus) consists of dried roots and root parts of a spiny, stemmed shrub that may be harvested within one year, generally making it cheaper to buy than true Panax ginseng.
While the new law narrows the selection of ginseng supplements, the level of quality in the marketplace still varies widely from product to product.
"Not all Panax ginseng products are the same," said Levine. "When purchasing ginseng supplements, consumers should carefully read the product label to ensure they are getting what they pay for - a product that is both standardized and clinically proven to be effective."
The Congressional amendment to the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, was officially signed into law by President Bush in May 2002. The law clearly prohibits any herbal product that is not derived from the genus Panax to use the term ginseng on labeling or advertising.