ABC bilberry article seeks to close door on adulteration

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Adulterant Melamine

An article published by the American Botanical Council for the first time gathers in one place all of the information available on how bilberry extracts are being adulterated in the marketplace, said coauthor and ABC executive director Mark Blumenthal.

Bilberry adulteration has been a problem for years.  The new article, coauthored by Stephen Foster and published in the latest edition of ABC’s quarterly HerbalGram​, serves to complete the picture of how bad players are cheating customers with phony purple juice potions.

“There is nothing really new about this, except for the fact that nobody has complied all the information from the literature or third party laboratory reports to look at the extent of the adulteration of bilberry.  This is the first time that someone has taken on the subject as extensively and as deeply as we have,”​ Blumenthal told NutraIngredients-USA.

One stop adulterant shopping

Blumenthal said having all of that information close to hand could help manufacturers weed out phony extracts.  Common, and well-known adulterants of bilberry extracts include elderberry and Chinese mulberry as well as red dye No. 2.

But there are others less commonly known.  For example, adulterants such as charcoal and anthocyanins from black rice or black soybean hulls, whose presence in extracts available in the market have been confirmed in laboratory tests, are not shown in some available lists of possible adulterants, Blumenthal said. 

Knowing what’s in the cheaters’ toolboxes is the key to finding the traces of their handiwork, Blumenthal said. Even with the best will in the world, conscientious manufacturers can’t find what they don’t know to look for.

 “Some of the lower cost, more facile analytical methods like UV are easily fooled unless that UV is part of an integrated pharmacopoeial method in which you have absolute identification of the raw material as a precondition,”​ he said.

Bilberry is a popular ingredient, the article notes.  Accoridng to data gathered by research firms SPINS, it was the 15th​ best selling botanical in the food drug mass channel in 2011, with sales of $1.6 million (excluding Walmart). Sales in the natural channel, excluding Whole Foods, were $1.2 million in 2011.  Bilberry is marketed for use in eye health and cardiovascular health products.

Specious species

“Bilberry” may refer to a number of species growing in many locations in the Northern Hemisphere.  But only the fruit and extracts of Vaccinium myrillus​ may marketed under the name, as defined the Herbs of Commerce 2nd​ Ed. reference work from the American Herbal Products Association, that lists the common names of about 1,650 herbs and their corresponding scientific names.  The Food and Drug Administration has accepted this work as a standard for botanical product nomenclature.

But the article references instances of two other species, V. uliginosum​ and V. vitis-idaea​ having been marketed as “Chinese domestic bilberry.”  The article reports that the wildcrafted harvest of these materials amounted to 60 tons in 2008, 95% of which was exported to the United States.

Another part of the bilberry story will sound familiar, too.  Extracts are available in the market that are priced so low that it is practically impossible for them not of have been adulterated. If a manufacturer is buying raw materials at that price point, an assumption of collusion is almost inevitable.

“The reason we published this article to get this information as widely distributed as possible so that there is no excuse for someone not to do proper due diligence,” ​he said.

The article is the fourth installment in the ongoing ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Program, a collaboration of the American Botanical Council, the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, and the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi. Previous articles have discussed the aduteration of skullcap and grapefruit seed extracts as a well as a historical overview of the adulteration dilemma.

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