Issue #93 | Supplement Special | Meet the Fraud-Fighting Botanicals Expert | Fraud in Supplements | 100 Weird Food Facts |
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Training Rescheduled: HACCP and Food Safety Systems for Complete Newbies has been moved to this Thursday
Meet the expert who keeps fraudsters on their toes
The complicated world of dietary supplements
Fraud in supplements - a multi-flavoured smorgasbord
News and Resources Roundup
100 Weird Food Facts (that you probably knew but are fun anyway (just for fun)
Food fraud news, incidents and updates
Do you take dietary supplements? Are you confident of their safety, efficacy and purity? Don’t be! Inauthentic supplements are most definitely a thing and we are exploring that in this week’s issue which is dedicated to food supplements.
Welcome to Issue 93, and a big hello if you are new here. Every week I scour the inter-webs for the best in food safety, food fraud and food sustainability, so I can bring you independent, insider news that you won’t find anywhere else. An extra huge 👏 hello 👏 and thank you to those of you who upgraded to a paid subscription this month. Love you lots!!!!! 😊
This week’s issue includes an introduction to supplement regulation and an overview of how food fraud looks in supplements (there are so many ways to go feral with supplement authenticity).
The 💥highlight 💥 of this issue is an interview with a man at the forefront of the global fight against adulteration in supplements, Stefan Gafner of the Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP). Read on to hear exactly what is going on with fraud in botanicals, and what the industry is doing to fight it.
Just for fun, this issue has a link to 100 weird food facts that you probably knew but are super-fun anyway, like ripe cranberries bounce when dropped but unripe cranberries don’t.
As always you’ll find a hand-curated selection of food safety news and resources for everyone in this issue. Plus food fraud news for paying subscribers, and a (still very husky!) 🎧 audio version 🎧 so you can catch up while on the go, below the paywall.
Thanks for being here,
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HACCP and Food Safety Systems for Complete Beginners
This training is for you if you are
completely new to HACCP and want to know how it works in food manufacturing, or;
you are a supplier to the food industry and want to know where you fit with food safety, or;
you are wondering if a career in food safety is right for you, or;
you just need a plain English explanation of all the acronyms!…
Then this training is for you.
Everyone is welcome, so spread the word.
Fraud Fighters: Meet the Botanical Adulteration Expert
I've been a huge fan of the American Botanical Council’s Botanical Adulterants Prevention Bulletins (BAPP bulletins) for many years so when their Chief Science Officer got in touch with me to ask me about food fraud in ginger I was delighted to help.
The Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP) bulletins are the most fabulous resources if you want to know about adulteration-type fraud in many herbs or botanical food supplements. Take the saffron bulletin for example. It is seventeen closely written pages about saffron, its adulteration and the detection of such, including the molecular structure of its most important chemical compounds, its common name in a multitude of languages, its geographical distribution, the size of the market and, most importantly, a deep dive into the known adulterants for saffron and the methods for detecting them.
Earlier this year, the team behind the BAPP bulletins published an ambitious paper that sought to combine all the knowledge from all the previously published bulletins into a single, peer-reviewed journal article, in the Journal of Natural Products. It is a truly remarkable article, with thousands of words of detailed information about dozens of possible adulterants for dozens of botanical ingredients used in complementary medicines, food supplements, functional foods, and cosmetics.
A ‘botanical’ is a part of a plant, extract or essential oil that is traded for its therapeutic properties, flavour(s), or aroma(s).
I was delighted to get a chance to talk with its lead author, and Director of BAPP, Stefan Gafner, PhD about the paper and the program last month. Dr Gafner has a PhD in pharmaceutical sciences from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Illinois’s Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmacognosy. He directed the analytical chemistry program for Tom’s of Maine before joining the nonprofit American Botanical Council (ABC) where he is the Chief Science Officer.
KC: Can you tell me about the BAPP, how did it come to be?
SG: The idea for BAPP grew out of a discussion at a trade show and is the brainchild of Mark Blumenthal, [founder and executive director of the ABC]. Partners of BAPP include Roy Upton of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia and Ikhlas Khan of the National Center for Natural Products Research at University of Mississippi.
The three men had concerns about the marketing of adulterated herbs, botanical extracts and essential oils which seemed to be becoming more prevalent. At the time it was becoming clear that ethical companies were at a disadvantage, and so they decided to create an education program to educate the market on adulteration, including how to detect fraud in various materials.
KC: Is the BAPP an independent program? How is it funded?
SG: BAPP is funded by direct financial support, predominantly from industry sponsor members of the American Botanical Council. Memberships and endorsements for the ABC come from not just manufacturers and suppliers but from analytical laboratories, law firms, research centres and media companies from about 80 countries worldwide.
KC: Can you tell me about your recently published Botanical Ingredients Forensics paper: why did you create it and who was it made for? What do you hope it will be used for?
SG: The inspiration for the paper was to combine the knowledge from multiple past [BAPP] bulletins so that all the information is in one place. We wanted to make the knowledge more accessible to a larger audience. The main target is QC people in industry labs.
The paper discusses three main adulteration types and how to test for them in dozens of botanicals:
Bulking agents, such as undeclared starches or fillers;
Addition of extra marker compounds to trick the analytical tests, such as pigments from black rice added to elder berry to boost the amount of anthocyanins;
Removal of valuable constituents, such as ginger or cinnamon with the essential oils removed before being ground up and sold as ginger powder or cinnamon powder.
KC: Do you worry (like I do) that sharing too much information about adulteration and adulterants that can evade detection is helpful to the bad guys?
SG: I am concerned that BAPP work may provide some information on adulteration to bad actors. Some people tell me that I help unethical people learn how to adulterate, rather than how to prevent adulteration. But there are other ways for fraudsters to figure it out since most of the information we summarise is already publicly available. However, there is a risk that some of the less sophisticated adulterators could become more sophisticated; that’s my main concern.
I know that some of our documents have been translated into other languages, and I’ve been told they are available in Chinese via WeChat so I can imagine that other countries may have that information and may try to see how to get around [the tests].
But we know the BAPP information is making a positive impact. When we surveyed ABC members and asked if they had changed their quality control procedures, specifications or suppliers based on the information provided in BAPP, twenty to thirty percent said “Yes”, they did change specifications or suppliers based on the information, so the program has had a very good impact [in preventing fraud].
KC: How much fraud is occurring in botanical ingredients every day?
SG: We don’t know. There are too many unknowns. No one has done a comprehensive analysis of the market. While it is possible to summarise results from various papers there are many potential confounders. For example, you do end up counting duplicate samples this way and the sampling is often not designed to have been representative of the geographic market.
However, there have been two papers that attempted to get these figures, and came up with approximately 25% of samples being adulterated based on DNA with similar results for chemical analyses*. However, it is very variable between different products. For example, Gingko leaf extract could have an adulteration rate as high as 57% (this is from soon-to-be-published research reviewing tests of 533 samples).
Europe and North America had very similar results in the Gingko study, about 60% [of samples adulterated] for both.
We think there is less fraud in Europe in more strictly regulated herbal medicines, compared to food supplements which are less regulated.
KC: Wow so fraud in botanicals is a pretty big problem. How does the food supplement industry cope with fraud in botanical ingredients?
SG: Reputable suppliers are doing a good job of mitigating fraud. They know their own supply chain well, and some even grow their own ingredients. That is, they have vertically integrated supply chains. For example, during my time at Tom’s of Maine, a significant portion of the herbal ingredients, including echinacea, chamomile, thyme and calendula were grown at its farms in Vermont, USA.
Ingredient suppliers that grow their own botanicals are also less likely to supply fraudulent materials to their customers. Being vertically integrated obviously has its benefits.
However, there is more fraud when the supply chain is less well-controlled. An example is liquorice root, which is typically grown in small quantities on individual farms in China and India, and sold on to intermediate persons, aggregators and traders who grade and blend the root from all different places. This makes it impossible to really ‘map’ the supply chain or keep control of the quality or authenticity.
Another big problem is that consumers in the USA have been taught to expect to pay prices that are too low for quality herbal products. American consumers think about some herbal extracts like a medication like paracetamol (‘Tylenol’) or ibuprofen… they think it’s all the same and so it’s fine to just buy the cheapest. However, not all Echinaceas are the same. That is one of the biggest issues we have at the moment. The high-quality herbal supplements are usually more expensive.
KC: Are you seeing any new and worrying trends in fraud in botanicals? Any good news?
SG: The good news is the BAPP program has gained good support in its twelve years, with a substantial percentage of industry now supporting it, including from Europe, Asia and Australasia. The program is having real impact.
My biggest concern is the spiking of supplements with prescription drugs, followed by fortification with marker constituents, for example, ellagic acid added to pomegranate peel extracts (Punica granatum, Lythraceae) and synthetic curcumin used in place of genuine turmeric extract.
A new vulnerability is the increasing popularity of products containing mixtures of botanicals, say six or seven ingredients. These can include ingredients that are only present in sub-therapeutic doses, and that contain excipients instead of adequate levels of the labelled botanicals.
KC: Thank you Stefan, that was a fascinating insight into the industry and the important work you do to prevent adulteration in botanicals.
Next week: An introduction to the American Botanical Council’s ‘Burn it Don’t Return It’ ground-breaking initiative for adulterated ingredients.
* Sources: Ichim, M.C. (2019). The DNA-Based Authentication of Commercial Herbal Products Reveals Their Globally Widespread Adulteration. Frontiers in Pharmacology, [online] 10. doi: https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2019.01227 and Ichim, M.C. and Booker, A. (2021). Chemical Authentication of Botanical Ingredients: A Review of Commercial Herbal Products. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 12. doi: https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2021.666850.
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The Complicated World of Dietary Supplements
Most people I know take at least one supplement. I’m currently chowing down on echinacea tablets, as I fight off a nasty cold.
But supplements are controversial in science. We shouldn’t really need to take supplements, say medical professionals, because, we should, in theory, be getting all the micronutrients - that is vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients - we need from the food we eat.
However, there are acute dietary intake shortfalls for many micronutrients in human diets around the globe. Globally there are “acute inadequacies” in intake of calcium, folate (vitamin B6), vitamin E and magnesium. And there are also moderate inadequacies for vitamin A, vitamin C, thiamine (vitamin B1), zinc, vitamin B12, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin B6 across various countries globally (source).
With so many diets falling short with respect to micronutrients, it’s not surprising that people who can afford to do so often turn to supplements to ‘fill the gaps’, in their nutritional needs. The global supplement industry is growing at 9% annually and was worth US$164 million in 2022.
Dietary supplements are products designed to be taken orally to fulfil a nutrition or health need. They deliver active ingredients in a concentrated form, such as a tablet, capsule, powder or liquid. Supplements include vitamin and mineral supplements, herbal supplements and nutrient-containing oils.
Many supplements don’t provide the promised health benefits, according to experts, including Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist from King’s College in London (UK). In a gross generalisation, Spector was recently reported in the International Business Times as saying that supplements are unnecessary and “most” supplement products are made in China in giant factories which, he says, are not regulated or controlled.
This is not true. Supplements are made in many countries, although often their ingredients are sourced from Chinese supply chains. Natural Products Insider reported last year that around three-quarters of all nutritional ingredients are sourced from China and that geopolitical tensions pose risks to supplement companies that rely on raw materials from China, including vitamin C, of which around 80% of global production is in China.
Whether or not supplements are effective at improving health is a discussion for other experts. What I care about is that supplements are pure, safe and authentic. Which is tricky!
Part of the challenge with supplements is the huge differences in how supplements are regulated in different parts of the globe. For example, in my country (Australia), many supplements are regulated as complementary medicines, with very high standards imposed on production and labelling. But in many European countries, and in the USA the same supplements are sometimes regulated as foods and in those cases, the standards are less stringent when it comes to purity and production systems.
Example: melatonin, a product taken for sleep cycle control and anxiety, is considered a dietary supplement and regulated under food laws in the USA. In Canada, it is regulated under natural health product regulations. In Australia, it is a controlled substance which can only be administered by prescription from a doctor (source).
The regulatory landscape and the global nature of ingredient supply chains for supplements make it difficult to police authenticity and purity problems in these products.
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Fraud in Supplements - a Smorgasbord
There are no published data on the incidence of fraud in dietary supplements. However, with fraud estimated to affect around 10% of food products, it is likely that dietary supplements are affected at levels of at least 10% as well.
Supplement fraud surfaces often in our food fraud reports. Food supplements and additives were the second most seized food type, by quantity, after alcoholic beverages in Interpol’s annual food fraud operation, Operation Opson X in 2021.
Just last month, I shared the stories of how two supplement brands were working to prevent online counterfeits of their products after finding fake versions of their products in the market.
Fraud in supplements comes in at least eight different ‘flavours’ (yummy!)
Fraudulent, misleading or unsubstantiated claims of efficacy.
For example, glucosamine, a supplement marketed as effective for reducing osteoarthritis, may work no better than a placebo. In fact, one study was halted because the group taking glucosamine reported worse joint pain than the placebo group! (source)
False claims of potency and purity, such as listing more active ingredient on the label than is actually in the product. For example, a survey of curcumin supplements in France in 2022 found that less than half of the products contained as much active ingredient as was declared on the label. (source)
The addition of materials to trick analytical tests, making an ingredient seem authentic when it is not. For example, pigments from black rice added to elder berry to boost the amount of anthocyanins (source);
The use of undeclared fillers and bulking agents. This is sometimes legitimate and sometimes fraudulent, depending on the filler, product labelling and regulations.
Adulteration with undeclared pharmacological ingredients such as sildenafil (Viagara) and stimulants. Weight loss products and sexual function products are most often affected. For example, a pre-workout booster supplement from the USA was found to contain DMBA by German authorities earlier this year. DMBA is a stimulant that is an unauthorised substance in Germany (source).
Misrepresentation of synthetic ingredients as 'natural'. For example, 70% of "all-natural" turmeric extract supplements purchased in the USA in 2021 contained curcumins from non-natural sources (source).
Addition of unsafe or unauthorised colourants. For example, powdered turmeric is adulterated with unsafe colourants lead chromate, metanil yellow, acid orange 7 and Sudan Red G (source).
Counterfeiting, in which an entity that is not the brand owner creates and sells products that resemble the brand’s products. For example, a review of supplements that contained insufficient active ingredients found that most of them carried ‘fake’ barcodes, that either belonged to fictitious, unregistered companies or to companies that do not supply supplements (source). In Hungary, forty percent of young people reported that they had encountered counterfeit dietary supplements (source).
Learn more about supplement fraud
Regulation of supplements: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5793269/
An overview of adulteration in botanicals: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.jnatprod.2c00929
Food Safety News and Resources
Click the link below for this week’s food safety news and resources from around the globe.
100 weird food facts that you probably knew but are cool anyway
There are some slight iffy ‘facts’ in this post about weird food facts, and a definite American bias, but I still found it fun.
Here are my faves from the list:
· The most expensive pizza in the world costs $12,000 dollars;
· Fruit-flavored snacks shine because of car wax;
· The red food dye for Skittles is made from boiled beetles;
· A corned beef sandwich was smuggled into space;
· Cheese is the most stolen food in the world;
· Ripe cranberries will bounce.
What you missed in last week’s issue
· Mystery toxin in tara flour identified (perhaps) by toxicologists
· Are food scientists the ‘baddies’ for making highly processed foods dangerously addictive?
· News and Resources Roundup
· How to sanitise harvest equipment to protect consumers from food poisoning
· Food fraud incidents, updates and emerging issues
Below for paying subscribers: Food fraud news, horizon scanning and incident reports, plus a (husky-sounding!) 🎧 audio version 🎧 so you can catch up while on the go
📌 Food Fraud News 📌
In what could be emerging news of large-scale document fraud (or not), a major supermarket chain in Ireland has been told to remove a huge number of frozen products from its shelves due to problems with traceability
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