Botanicals are often adulterated, usually for economic reasons—there’s money to be made by passing off cheap knock-offs rather than the real deal. If only companies bothered to test materials. If only appropriate test methods could be used to assay ingredient quality. If only test methods could stay ahead of adulterers.
This story is nothing new to anyone who’s followed the botanical supplements industry over the last year, what with the jihad against herb quality launched by the New York attorney general’s office last year.
A lesser-known but bigger-selling botanical than most of the ones targeted by the NYAG last year is cranberry. Widely used for its juice, the cranberry's polyphenol-rich skin is used as a heavy-hitting nutraceutical, mostly for urinary tract infections, but increasingly demonstrated gut, cognitive and cardiovascular benefits.
But as with many popular ingredients—cranberries as an ingredient class are growing at 10 to 15 percent annually—adulteration remains an unsavory if seemingly intractable business practice. Cranberries are no different. Peanut skins are used to trick lab tests into thinking the powder is polyphenol-rich. That’s because there are polyphenols in peanut skins. Just not the health benefits as befitting cranberries.
A tech team out of cran capital Wisconsin, Complete Phytochemical Solutions, has developed a new testing tool that aims to better assess cranberry composition to ensure product quality is maintained.
Called maldi-tof, it is a mass spectrometry technique that can characterize and reveal the structure of proanthocyanidins (PACs) and tannins in a more precise way that older-school tools could not.
Won’t get fooled again
“Certain analytical tools can’t differentiate from grapes or cranberries or peanut skins,” said Christian Kreuger, CEO of Complete Phytochemical Solutions and an early pioneer in developing the maldi-tof tool. “Routine colorimetric assays can be fooled because you can’t tell the difference from source materials. We call it polyphenol fingerprinting.”
Adulteration is certainly the paramount issue with cranberries, according to Roy Upton, executive director of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, which recently published a monograph on cranberries in order to help the industry on everything from identification to health benefits. But it goes deeper than that.
Upton said the AHP cranberry monograph “helps to distinguish between different types of cranberry preparations, such as those containing soluble versus insoluble PACs. Most of the UTI benefit is associated with soluble PACs but products containing insoluble PACs are much less expensive and so can draw consumers and health practitioners away from an appropriate product if used for urinary tract health. The insoluble PACs seem to have a specific action on the gut.”
Upton said the maldi-tof technology can be a real solution to the adulteration problem with cranberry concentrates, because it is an effective analytical technology for discerning between A- and B-type PACS and to look at specific PAC ratios.
“If all the good research on cranberry PACs points to A-type linkages and they have to be greater than 90 percent, then those are the hallmarks that products should be benchmarked to,” said Kreuger. “Malbi-tof is probably the best platform to handle polymer chemistry.”
However, Upton said malbi-tof may have a limitation in that manufacturers can use it to quantify PACs without differentiating between soluble and insoluble PACs.
“This will cause two products sitting side by side on the shelf to appear identical based on total PAC content, but the product with insoluble PACs will not have the proven urinary tract health benefits associated with soluble PACs and will be much less expensive.”
Insoluble PAC products are made from the pomace, said Upton, which is basically the waste-stream material from pressing for juice (read: inexpensive), whereas concentrates that come from juice and contain soluble PACs are relatively expensive.
One of the latest entrants to the cranberry game is Fruit d’Or. They have fully embraced the malbi-tof technology as a way of getting ahead of the unscrupulous suppliers adulterating cranberries with peanut skins and grape skins blended into cranberries.
“Manipulators need to be stopped,” said Stephen Lukawski, sales and marketing manager at Fruit d’Or, a cranberry and blueberry supplier. “We have a chance to take cranberries and make it a superberry. But if someone doesn't use the right test method, we all look bad. This challenges everyone to be aware that we have the tools to analyze for efficacy. We want to send a message loud and clear that we have the tools in place and we are putting them on notice, we recognize the adulteration issue and are doing something about it. If I can show to a consumer that we have a better-quality product, which is why the price is 20 percent higher, the consumer will buy that at the end of the day.”
Part of that stewardship and education process comes from Complete Phytochemical Solutions. Kreuger said he makes sure to publish all the work on its methods in order to share the knowledge and make good decisions about which testing tool to use and when.
“We’ve worked with big players in pomegranates, in cranberries, in grape and blueberries,” said Kreuger. “For all of these products and by-products, this analytical platform is in the wheelhouse to address the same issue of authentication.”
To that end, Kreuger said his company is the only one that provides standard reference materials and fingerprint databases. “We’ve built that platform,” he said. “Analytical labs have a job to educate on what questions to ask, how do manufacturers know if you’ve got a lower-priced product that’s of comparable quality. That’s a real challenge.”
If your supplier can’t answer some of the questions surrounding adulteration games, analytical labs can be that source. And armed with today’s specific testing machinery to foil the economically motivated adulterers, consumers can feel confident that the cranberry they’ve been hearing about can truly address their health concerns. That way, everyone wins.