Attention given to preventing adulteration on the rise, but has that curbed the problem?

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

"You’ve got cranberry ingredients where a certain amount of base material will go overseas and twice as much will come back" - Dr Christian Krueger, University of Wisconsin Madison. Image: © iStockPhoto / YinYang
"You’ve got cranberry ingredients where a certain amount of base material will go overseas and twice as much will come back" - Dr Christian Krueger, University of Wisconsin Madison. Image: © iStockPhoto / YinYang

Related tags Grape seed extract Organic food Supply chain management Mark blumenthal

Is the dietary supplement industry getting a handle on the adulteration issue?  The baseline data does not exist to be able to say one way or another. But sources agree that in the one thing you can measure—the attention the issue is getting—the situation is improving.

Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council, has observed the dietary supplement for some 40 years now, and said that in his experience, the amount of attention the issue is now getting is unprecedented.

“I think the dietary supplement industry is getting better insofar as there is much more attention being given to this subject than ever before. This is not only from the media but from members of the industry and that includes executives of some of the largest companies. Quality, ingredient identity, transparency in the supply chain—all of these issues are part of the discussion at trade shows, and in private discussion. Even traditional competitors are now cooperating on various quality control efforts,” ​Blumenthal told NutraIngredients-USA.

Documented cases

But no one, Blumenthal included, disputes that adulteration is taking place. The question everyone wants answered is, how much?  Without hard baseline data, Blumenthal said he couldn’t really venture a guess.

“On the minus side, it’s difficult to determine how many ingredients are adulterated and to what extent those adulterated products are making their way into the marketplace. So it’s hard to say what kind of effect this having on the industry at the present moment,”​ he said.

Even without the baseline needed to make an overall determination, specific examples of adulteration abound. And the types of adulteration have changed, too, as cheaters find new ways to beat tests or hit upon new, low-cost sources of material to use to ‘cut’ ingredients. Sometimes this takes the form of merely including inert material that results in an ingredient that has a weaker action, or no action at all. But adulteration can also be potentially dangerous, too.

grapes seeds extract, Polyphenolics
Polyphenolics' grape seed extract

Madera, CA-based Polyphenolics, a division of wine giant Constellation Brands that in recent years has been developing a line of grape seed extracts, has found that material from a powerful undeclared allergen—peanuts—is now starting to show up in the market in ingredients claiming to be grape seed extract. Mark Kelm, PhD, director of research at Constellation Brands said his company recently completed a market surveillance project and what they found was sobering.

“We started to see aberrations in the analytical data. We looked at about 20 to 25 different products and in about 20% of them we found something other than grape seed extract in there. We found peanut skin extract ​(a cheap ingredient with a similar chemical profile) was being used. I can’t say how widespread it is over the whole market because I can really only talk about the products that were provided to me,” ​he said.

Kelm said that the chemical profiles of the two ingredients are similar enough that it’s likely that only a highly trained chemist who was alerted to what to look for and who was using the right tools for the job would detect the adulteration.

“It’s a bit of a niche area for chemist to work in. If you have done any work specifically in tannins you probably have some inkling, but it’s a rather sophisticated kind of adulteration that we are seeing. You could easily miss this if you were doing a very simple analytical method. I did present some of this information to the people at GNC and it was an eye opener for them,” ​he said.

The right tools

Having the right tools is a critical part of the picture. Determining what’s what in a mixture of proanthocyanin-rich ingredients, such as a mixture of berries and/or other ‘superfruit’-type ingredients can be especially difficult. In a discussion of supply chain management last September at the Rocky Mountain Dietary Supplement Forum, an industry event sponsored by Boulder, CO-based consulting firm FDA Compliance Group, one industry executive frankly admitted that if a supplier gave him something that purported to be a mixed berry powder, there was no test he could perform that would identify exactly what constituents were in there and at what ratios.

Trying to address just that situation has been the recent work of Christian Krueger, PhD, a research manager at the University of Wisconsin Madison who also principal in the analytical firm Phytochemical Solutions. In concert with cranberry supplier Fruit d’Or, Krueger has been perfecting a MALDI-TOF analytical method that can more fully characterize the proanthocyanidins within cranberry, and can distinguish those from other very similar chemical signatures. In the case of the cranberry ingredients he has tested, Krueger said that grape seed extract, itself a target for adulteration, has shown up as one of the adulterating ingredients. 

“We have tested ingredients labeled as cranberry and have found proanthocyanidins that have the hallmarks of grape seed extract. With a high priced commodity like cranberry it could make sense to use a lower priced one like grape seed extract,”​ he said.

And while he also lacks the baseline data to be able to say just how much adulteration is taking place in the market, he said that he believes that the risk with cranberry is rising, and is one of the reasons Fruit d’Or has developed its testing protocols, which he called the most robust in the sector.  The global nature of the supply chain is raising the risk, Krueger said.

“The likelihood of adulteration is higher now and a lot of that has to do with foreign markets. I think there are two issues here, one has to do with testing and another has to do with supply chain management. You’ve got cranberry ingredients where a certain amount of base material will go overseas and twice as much will come back,” ​he said.

The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) maintains the Botanical Identity References Compendium which allows the industry to share knowledge and resources to accurately identify herbal materials used in consumer products. The growing resource provides a free, publicly-available compendium of physical characteristics and test methods that can be used by qualified and experienced analysts to determine the identity of plant species and articles of trade obtained from these plants.

Question of organic certifications

Fruit d’Or bills itself as the largest supplier of certified organic cranberry ingredients. Fruit d’Or sources and certifies its ingredients in Canada, where cranberry production has been rapidly rising in recent years. Organic ingredients that come from overseas, and are certified by local third parties, are the big concern for pea protein supplier World Food Processing, based in Oskaloosa, IA. Tyler Lorenzen, who is the company's president of proteins and ingredients, said classic adulteration, in other words, adding in some green or yellow powder and calling the whole mishmash peas, is less of an issue in his business than it might be in the realm of polyphenol ingredients. But if adulteration could be a form of ‘in-transparency’ in the supply chain—let’s just call it lying—there is plenty of room to question truthfulness in the supply of organic ingredients.

Dried field peas, World Food Processing, PURISPea protein
World Food Processing photo

“We are more concerned with the subject of food fraud where the integrity of the organic nature of a product is not maintained.  You want to know who is the farmer, where the seed came from and have transparency of the certificates right through the system.  In my opinion, the most transparent, the truest organic ingredients come right from your backyard.  It’s a very tough battle when you compare prices with things that come from abroad that claim to be organic.  You can test for allergens, you can test for GMOs.  But there is no test you can do to prove that something is really organic. The cost of organic production is higher and we want to make sure there is a level playing field for everyone,”​ he said.

Broader question

Frank Jaksch, CEO of ingredient supplier and analytical testing company ChromaDex Corp, said that the conversation is in fact shifting from just the need to know which tests to use to a question of better management of the entire process.

“The forced awareness on adulteration is gaining momentum more so than I’ve seen in 15 or 20 years. While I would have liked to see the industry do this on its own, the NYAG affair did provide a seed event. There is a lot of talk about what is the appropriate testing to do, but that’s not really the big issue. It’s still a matter of supply chain management,” ​he said.

While the attention the issue is received is all to the good, Blumenthal said the question of which industry we’re talking about remains a more intractable problem.

“When people refer to ‘the industry’ it’s really a misnomer. This is a very layered, very heterogenous business. We know the members of trade associations represent the responsible sectors of the industry, but I’m willing to estimate that more than half of the industry are not members of the associations and in many cases are not following some of the industry requirements and recommendations. They may not even be following GMPs, and we see that repeatedly,”​ he said.

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