Adulteration of Black Cohosh and the Challenges of Identity
Emerson is very proud to support the American Botanical Council (ABC), one of the top herbal research and education sources in the country. One of ABC’s goals is to improve awareness of not just the benefits of herbal medicines, but also the challenges that practitioners face when using herbs available through the dietary supplement market.
In this issue, I want to cover a botanical most of us know of for its benefits in women’s health: black cohosh. Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa or Cimicifuga racemosa) is an herb grown in North America and most frequently used to treat menopause. With so many women going through menopause at any given time, the sales growth of black cohosh has led to a market opportunity that has been taken advantage of in unfortunate ways. A report published by Steven Foster in Herbalgram back in 2013 reported that there are several issues with the black cohosh available on the market, including adulteration with other Actaea species, primarily from China.
Adulteration affects clinicians in many ways. In 2002, reports began to surface that black cohosh may be linked to liver toxicity. It is now believed that the reports were not tied to black cohosh, but to a common adulterant in the herbal product. Giving an herb a bad rap due to an adulterant, and not due to the actual plant in question, could push us from using botanicals, which have a firm place in our clinical formularies. In addition, it would not be expected for other Actaea species to carry the same constituent profile or clinical benefits. When looking into published research on black cohosh for hot flashes, for example, how much of the discrepancies in outcome stem from the material used in the study? Could the wrong plant species have been used in some of the studies showing lack of efficacy?
This brings up the common problem of identifying the herbal material with certainty before use in manufacturing. Many manufacturers trust the source of the material (the “ingredient supplier”) to test the ingredient and purchase it based upon review of a certificate of analysis. This practice, in some instances where the ingredient supplier is well vetted ahead of time, can be adequate to meet the FDA’s laws. However, the best brands are going above and beyond to also test in-house or to send to one of their own verified labs to review the material and ensure it is what they think it is! Our EQP partners leverage this latter practice, with EQP Gold partners testing every new lot of material that comes in.
Testing can be challenging when it comes to herbs as well; their chemistry is complex, and savvy ingredient sellers looking to make more profit may add adulterants (like other similar species) to the finished product to get more material, but not so much that it won’t pass the routine identification testing.
Another reason to be cautious about where you are purchasing your supplements!
Many thanks to our partners at the American Botanical Council for their ongoing work in ensuring that all of us in relationship with herbs (as medicines, as ingredients, etc.) can understand best practices. For more information on the ABC, visit Herbalgram.org.
Jaclyn Chasse, ND
Dr. Jaclyn Chasse is a naturopathic physician and the VP of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs for Emerson Ecologics. She proudly serves as the President of the AANP and thinks everyone needs a good probiotic!