Boswellia oleogum resin prone to adulteration, new bulletin outlines

By Adi Menayang

- Last updated on GMT

Indian frankincense (Boswellia serrata) in Kinnerasani Wildlife Sanctuary, Andhra Pradesh, India. J.M. Garg / Wikimedia Commons
Indian frankincense (Boswellia serrata) in Kinnerasani Wildlife Sanctuary, Andhra Pradesh, India. J.M. Garg / Wikimedia Commons

Related tags Adulteration boswellia Pharmacology Ayurveda

The botanical Boswellia has been used for its anti-inflammatory properties for millennia, but it’s not uncommon to find some products today labeled as Boswellia to skimp on the amount of the botanical or to substitute in a less-researched form.

“Based on the available data, it appears that the adulteration of B. serrata resin is both a common and long-standing occurrence that must be addressed with appropriate quality control protocols,” ​wrote Dr. Allison McCutcheon, PhD, a Vancouver-based expert in herbal medicine research, in a new report​.

What's oleogum resin?

As explained by the American Botanical Council​, an oleogum resin is a naturally occurring mixture of resin (a viscous mixture of terpenes), gum (a viscous exudate composed of polysaccharides), volatile oil, and mostly small amounts of other substances.

This report on Boswellia is the latest edition of the ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program​ (or BAPP), an initiative spearheaded by the American Botanical Council (ABC) in cooperation with the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia and the National center for Natural Products Research.

It was compiled to provide timely information on issues of adulteration of Boswellia serrata ​oleogum resin, such as occurrence of adulteration, the market situation, and consequences for the consumer and the industry.

What’s the scope of adulteration?

Sales of boswellia supplements are growing rapidly in the US, particularly in the mass market channel, where sales increased from approximately $143,000 in 2013 to $14.6 million in 2017, corresponding to an average annual growth of roughly 210%, according to data from ABC's latest HerbalGram report​.

Though there are no comprehensive published studies on the frequency of B. serrata​ adulteration, Dr. McCutcheon illustrated a glimpse of the situation by citing data from two reports published in 2016. In one, authors found 18% (three out of 17) of commercially available Boswellia products they analyzed to be adulterated. Another report found 43% (three out of seven).

(We reported on the findings​ by the authors who found 18% of the products they analyzed to be adulterated back in 2016).

“The growing popularity of Boswellia resin in dietary supplements and medicinal herb products designed to alleviate inflammatory conditions, coupled with credible reports of either substitution or dilution with undeclared lower-cost ingredients, prompted us to investigate and report on boswellia,”​ said Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of ABC and director of BAPP, in an emailed statement.

“The Boswellia bulletin confirms that boswellia is subject to intentional adulteration by some suppliers, meaning that responsible buyers of Boswellia raw material and extract need to exercise additional diligence in their quality control programs.”

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Supply chain shortages, cost-cutting drive adulteration

It’s the oleogum resin of the Boswellia serrata​ plant that has a solid body of research backing its potential health benefits.

But as its supply depletes, McCutcheon reported that it is not unheard of that suppliers will substitute tree oleogum with bark or with soil collected near the tree and market it as the plant’s oleogum resin.

It has also been reported that some parties would use other, less-researched Boswellia species (Boswellia frereana, ​for example), or different plants altogether (such as resin from the Burseraceae or Pinaceae families).

Stefan Gafner, PhD, chief science officer of ABC and technical director of BAPP, commented: “Boswellia serrata is preferred in Western countries due to the number of clinical studies supporting its anti-inflammatory benefits.

“In other areas of the world, substitution of Boswellia serrata with other Boswellia species may occur due to permissible interchangeable use. However, substitution or adulteration may also be due to shortages in the supply chain or the availability of material from other plants at lower cost.”

The bulletin urges buyers to be more vigilant, suggesting that manufacturers who specify a particular species on their product label should be aware of interchangeable use and “implement adequate quality control measurements to ensure that the purchased materials comply with the identity specifications for the desired species.”

You can read the full report HERE​(registration required).

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