The nondescript appearance of herbs in their dried or powdered form, coupled with their high commercial value, has historically made them subject to adulteration, falsification and substitution to increase profits. In fact, adulteration in the herbal industry has been so widespread that at various times regulatory agencies have had to accept a percentage of adulteration of certain herbs as being within legal limits.
All countries since ancient times have indulged in herbal adulteration. Greek, Roman and Muslim traders would engage a special official to oversee herbal quality at the various ports of entry. The most traditional and common test for herbal quality is ‘organoleptic,’ meaning to verify an herb based on appearance, smell and taste. Today, scientific testing is employed. Questions of purity, however, still remain relative. This could be relative to how much of a non-useful part such as stem fragments as well as other extraneous material including foreign plant fragments and soil are allowed and still meet the market standard. (For a more thorough exposition on the topic of herbal adulteration, read "A Brief History of Adulteration of Herbs, Spices and Botanical Drugs" by Steven Foster published in HerbalGram, 2011.)
Obviously, the best of all possible worlds would have unadulterated herbs and honest and accurate labeling. Failing that, anyone manufacturing herbal products or engaged with their pharmaceutical or clinical use must implement their own method of determining the quality of an herb or herb product. This can involve employing expensive laboratory equipment or contracting other personal supportive sources and references.
Adulteration of Herbal Products in China
China, heir to the world’s richest body of herbal wisdom, is the largest user and proponent of herbal medicine globally (if for no other reason than worldwide scope and population). For this reason, China would more likely be vulnerable to issues of adulteration than any other country.
Chinese herbal medicine is so powerful because the knowledge of herbs, their use and cultivation has been continuously distilled over the course of millennia, and continues to be actively developed today. East Indian Ayurveda’s tradition is also very long-lived, but there seems to be greater consistency and organization of information about herbs and their application in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
This distinction is no secret. On a visit to Thailand, I asked someone on the street about traditional Thai medicine and they candidly recommended me to a local Traditional Chinese Medical doctor, saying that Chinese herbal medicine is the most effective. Further, they pointed out how throughout Africa, Chinese herbal doctors were similarly regarded with the highest esteem.
But every so often, some hack media reporter, a well-meaning but uninformed medical doctor, or even an herbalist publishes reasons why the public should avoid and even completely boycott all Chinese herbal products. One of my students directed me to "The Truth about Chinese Herbal Medicine" where respected herbalist Dr. Richard Schulze lists the most shocking examples of Chinese adulteration and misdeeds as reason to boycott the use of any type of Chinese herbal product. I do not challenge the undocumented claims in his blog, many if not all of which may be true, but I do say it is gravely misleading to the extent that it may dissuade individuals from seeking the benefits that only traditional Chinese herbal medicine can achieve for their health issues.
It’s nowhere near as shocking as the examples given in Schulze’s blog, but even the herb he (as a former fellow student of Dr. Christopher) holds as sovereign among all, cayenne pepper (Capsicum frutescens) in the form of African bird pepper, has been known in the past to have been adulterated with red lead or salt to help it retain its red color, or in more recent times, sawdust.
I highly recommend that you read an article by herbalist Eric Brand entitled "Organic Herbs in China" for a more balanced view regarding the harvesting, growing and evolution of good manufacturing practices (GMP) and the organic movement in China. Millions of Chinese both in China and throughout the world rely on herbs harvested and cultivated in China for their health needs, so these must meet a minimum Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) standard based on thousands of years of information about the cultivation and harvesting of Chinese herbs. While the organic movement in 2010 at the time of Brand’s writing was in its infancy, it can only be assumed given the tremendous amount of attention focused on the quality of Chinese herbs and products over recent years, the movement has substantially grown.
Reputable Sources for Unadulterated Chinese Herbs
The following is not intended as a complete list of sources of quality Chinese herbs and products but offers a starting point.
As chief formulator and developer of the line, knowing that they are one of the few companies who have taken it upon themselves to conform to the most stringent guidelines based on California’s draconian Proposition 65 (Clean Air and Clean Water Bill of 1986), I can personally vouch for the safety and quality of the Chinese herbs used in Planetary Herbals http://www.planetaryherbals.com/
Internationally based Mayway Herb Company has become one of the most popular and largest importers and manufacturers of Chinese herbs and herb products. With the creation of their Plum Flower line of traditional Chinese Herbal formulas, they are making it possible for increasing numbers of the public and herbal practitioners from a wide cultural base to learn the application and benefits of Chinese herbal medicine. The fact of the existence of this line of products manufactured under strict GMP standards makes it possible for me and others to teach Chinese herbal medicine to non-Chinese herbalists and have the formulas available. I also increasingly see natural food stores carrying a selection of Plum Flower products.
In addition, I have no hesitation to recommend or use herbs from the following companies.
Bio Essence http://bioessence.com/
Blue Poppy http://bluepoppy.com/cfwebstore/
Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm http://www.chinesemedicinalherbfarm.com/
Evergreen Herbs https://www.evherbs.com/evshop/
Golden Flower Chinese Herbs http://www.gfcherbs.com/about/manufacturing.php
Herbalists and Alchemist http://www.herbalist-alchemist.com/
Herbs Etc. http://www.herbsetc.com/
Herb Pharm http://www.herb-pharm.com/
Kan Herbs http://www.kanherb.com/
Mountain Rose Herbs http://www.mountainroseherbs.com/
Nu Herbs http://www.nuherbs.com/
Spring Wind Herbs https://springwind.com/
Directly from China: Lanzhou Foci Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. and the Guangzhou Qixing Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. are companies ranked among the top 1% of medicine manufacturers in all of China.
Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face
Rather than boycotting Chinese herbs, use products from the above-mentioned list of reputable companies and continue to seek out higher quality organic herbal products. Because of the market, these are becoming easier and easier to find. The Chinese herbal tradition is too vastly useful to boycott, and the companies and farmers who are working hard to preserve the quality and purity of Chinese herbs deserve our support.