The ingredient, called Curcuzen, is the brainchild of Mohamed Rafi, PhD, CEO of Bioactives American Corporation and of Princeton Vitamins, the company’s finished goods spinoff. Rafi said the goal was to find a way to offer an ingredient that could unequivocally be proven to be natural curcumin, one that is free of synthetic curcuminoids.
Popularity breeds adulteration
Curcumin, the active ingredient in the spice turmeric, has seen meteoric growth in recent years and is now the best selling botanical ingredient. Mark Blumenthal, founder of the American Botanical Council, said sales of the ingredient have skyrocketed by 85% in the food, drug and mass channel over the past year. And the botanical has been the best selling herb in the natural channel for several years. Blumenthal made the comments yesterday in a session of NutraIngredients-USA’s online botanicals event.
The problem with this burgeoning market is that it has created a wide playing field for less than ethical actors, Rafi said. Curcumin has been studied for many powerful benefits, including potent antioxidant activity. But the sector could be ripe for a fall if too much adulterated material enters the marketplace and consumers get turned off to products that don’t work as well as expected because the products aren’t what they say they are.
In the same webinar yesterday where Blumenthal talked about curcumin sales, industry consultant Steven Dentali PhD, who previously worked as an herbal ingredients specialist for Herbalife, said that herbal research protocols have gotten better and better, so research done on curcuminoids is generally done with well characterized materials. In the context of the Curcuzen ingredient, this means that there is little if any research that pertains directly to synthetic curcuminoids, yet Rafi said the marketplace is rife with these materials that are sailing under the banner of science done on natural products.
“I first started to see this in 2010 because there was a shortage in the market then. The price was about $40 a kilo and it went to $300. It settled back to about $120 to $140 a kilo, but at the same time I have seen contract manufacturers who are getting the product for $60 to $70 a kilo,” Rafi told NutraIngredients-USA.
Carbon 14 used as marker
Rafi’s Curcuzen product is a 95% curcuminoids extract of turmeric. That in an of itself is unremarkable, but he said the product is differentiated from many generic ingredients in the marketplace through the additional step of carbon verification to prove unequivocally that the product is authentic. The ingredient goes though a carbon tracking technique that looks at carbon 14, an isotope found in plant materials. It is the same principle as the one used in carbon dating of archeological finds, though in this case overall amount of carbon 14 is what is being looked for, rather than trying to measure a trace amount after a long period of radioactive decay. A curcuminoid ingredient of natural origin will contain an expected amount of carbon 14; one that has been synthesized will contain no detectable quantities, Rafi said.
Sabinsa Corporation, a global curcuminoids supplier, has raised the issue of the presence of synthetic curcuminoids in the marketplace and has campaigned on the topic for years. The company says it was among the first to identify the carbon isotope method as the best way to find the presence of a synthetic component within a given ingredient.
“It is verified with a ‘carbon dating’technique developed at the University of Georgia. We validated the technique by purposefully mixing in various amounts of synthetic curcuminoids and we got the carbon 14 ratios we expected when we did that,” Rafi said.
Rafi said the technique can help to differentiate natural products from those spiked with synthetics. Common HPLC tests cannot make this distinction, and he said he has been disappointed that many buyers of curcuminoids are not motivated to look too deeply into what they’re buying. Leaving their potentially fraudulent presence aside, the quality of synthetic curcuminoids depends entirely on the manufacturing process, and if suppliers are not being forthright about the presence of this constituent in the first place, it’s hard to know exactly what else might in the product.
“Some of these ingredients could have residual amounts of harmful solvents like benzene. But I have had buyers tell me that as long as they get their three peaks [the expected HPLC fingerprint of curcumin, which will be there whether it’s from natural or synthetic curcumin], they’re good,”he said.