Elderberry demand continues; so does adulteration

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

©Getty Images - Adam88rx
©Getty Images - Adam88rx

Related tags elderberry Immune health Adulteration

The huge spike in demand for elderberry products has seen a rise in the amount of adulterated material entering the market, sources say.

Stefan Gafner, PhD, chief science officer of the American Botanical Council and head of the Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP), said it has been a concern and that BAPP is monitoring the problem.

BAPP: Problem appears to be getting worse

“We have been getting reports on adulteration of elderberry and saw palmetto.  They suggest the situation has actually worsened to some degree, especially with elderberry,”​ Gafner told NutraIngredients-USA.

“To get the hard data you would be looking at testing a number of commercial products, to analyze them to see what’s really in there,” ​he said.

James Neal Kababick, head of Flora Research Laboratories in Grants Pass, OR, said his company has been swamped with requests for testing of all manner of immune supporting ingredients.  In so doing, he has seen a lot of elderberry samples come across his desk, and the amount of substandard material is worrying.

“We are getting a lot of requests to test elderberry products, and there is a lot of adulteration.  We are seeing a lot of poor quality material hit the market,” ​he said.

Lab: All manner of adulteration approaches seen

Neal Kababick said the adulteration ranges from simple dilution—a product that tests as elderberry but only returns a faint fingerprint—to products that seems to be spiked with all manner of other materials.

“We have seen material is that just flat out dilute, weak material. Some of the samples don’t even contain anthocyanins​ [the primary chemical markers and bioactives in elderberry],”​ he said.

Adulterators are building on experience gained in the recent past to capitalize on this latest immune ingredient trend.  The lowest level of this practice is to just try to make an adulterated ingredient ‘look’ right with the addition of lower cost purplish or reddish materials in order to fool an UV spectrophotometric test, one of the more basic tests of incoming botanical material, Neal Kababick said.

A more sophisticated practice to try to fool unwary purchasers is to add in anthocyanins from lower cost material that might yield a material that mimics to some degree what the peaks on an HPLC readout for elderberry should look like.  

“We have seen some material that claims to be elderberry but doesn’t look anything like elderberry.  Then there are some materials that might look like elderberry at first but have an inconsistent anthocyanin profile,”​ he said.

Artemis exec: Ridiculously low prices should be your first clue

Leslie Gallo, president of elderberry supplier Artemis International, said it’s not really necessary to do any analytical chemistry sleuthing to know that adulterated ingredients are entering the market.  You just have to look at what some suppliers are selling them for.

“I have seen 10:1 extracts offering 10% anthocyanin concentrations for sale online.  They are offering these at prices where everyone in the industry ought to know that it is impossible to offer true elderberry extracts at those prices,”​ Gallo said.

“These are Chinese companies doing this.  If I could pinpoint this kind of adulteration happening in other places I would, but those are the facts of the matter,”​ she said.

Gallo said like many botanicals elderberry has a somewhat inflexible supply chain.  Artemis has had a longstanding relationship an Italian extraction partner Iprona and with as many as 450 Austrian elderberry growers.  Bringing new supplies online is a matter of years, not months.

“We are about out of raw material.  The last of our powders and extracts are coming off the line in the next month or so and then we will have no new raw material until the next harvest starting in late August,”​ she said.

Strong demand forecast to continue

Even with the passing of the first wave of pandemic panic, the demand for the ingredient remains strong. This is the window where adulterators will tend to proliferate, Gallo said.

The question for her company and others in the trade is to what degree the current high demand will continue.  Will it pay to invest in new capacity now?

“We have been talking a lot about this internally. The question is, is this year kind of a one-off that might see a lot of us go crazy ramping up production and then seeing demand falling?” ​Gallo said.

“The consensus in the industry is that consumers are now taking their immune health more seriously and that demand will continue.  People will look at taking something for their immune health like they do taking a multivitamin. In other words, it won’t be something you pay attention to just in cold and flu season,”​ Gallo added.

Gallo said any expansion of acreage will occur in Austria, where the company’s cadre of growers has years of experience cultivating the crop, which is the Sambucus nigra​, or the European black elderberry species.  Sambucus canadensis​, or American black elderberry, is also grown, and to some degree the species are considered to be interchangeable.  But Artemis considers the nigra​ species to be superior, Gallo said.

“If I could grow elderberry cost effectively in North America I would,” ​Gallo said. “But ​nigra doesn’t grow well in North America, which is more suited to ​canadensis.

More work needs to be done to combat elderberry adulteration, Gallo said.  She said her company is working with USP to broaden its elderberry monograph, which at the moment applies only to a 17% ethanolic extract, which doesn’t reflect many of the products in the market.  And she said Artemis is working with BAPP on the issue.

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