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  • Buyer Beware: Identifying Pure vs. Impure Ginkgo Supplements

Native to China, ginkgo biloba (yínxìng in Chinese) is one of the oldest living species of tree (also called the maidenhair tree), but in the supplement industry, ginkgo may mean “buyer beware.” Yes, beware. (That sounds ominous, right?) Why should you, as a consumer, beware? Because it’s your money, and even more importantly, your health. Because not all ginkgo supplements are created equal, you may need to do a little research to find a brand or product of sufficient quality (meaning pure, potent, and safe) to be worthy of your purchase.

Ginkgo, a widely studied ingredient whose main benefit is cognitive support, has grown into one of the most popular herbal supplements in the United States and European markets.1 The American Botanical Council Herb Market Report for 2014 showed ginkgo ranked 17th in total sales at just over $11 million.2 Because the roughly $50 billion global supplement market is under pressure to maximize profits, some less scrupulous manufacturers may adulterate their ginkgo supplements.3

Supplement Adulteration

But what is adulteration, and what does it mean in the supplement industry? Adulterate (verb | a-dul-ter-ate) is defined as corrupt or make impure by the addition of a foreign or inferior substance; to replace more valuable ingredients with less valuable or inert ingredients.4 In the supplement industry, adulteration can mean many things.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) usually refer to adulteration in terms of identity, purity, potency, safety, and efficacy. It can mean that the material listed on the label isn’t present in the capsule, caplet, or gelcap in the amount(s) listed. It can mean that the material isn’t as efficacious as a buyer would expect. And it can even mean that the material (ginkgo biloba, in this case) may not even be present in the finished product. Buyer beware, indeed!

ginkgo biloba is a traditional Chinese herb from tree leaves

There are many stops along the supply chain where supplement adulteration can occur. An ingredient supplier may send a brand or manufacturer adulterated raw materials, ginkgo leaf powder or extract, for instance. The manufacturer/brand may genuinely be unaware they aren’t receiving the ginkgo material they ordered, yet ignorance isn’t a viable excuse, and it’s not something a consumer should ignore.

In fact, it only reveals a concerning lack of identity testing or inadequate testing standards and procedures by that particular brand/manufacturer. Another possibility is that a brand or manufacturer may willfully adulterate their product to save money or drive up profit margins, and that requires you, as a consumer, to ask yourself what kind of company you’re supporting with your money and whether or not you’re throwing it away on such a product. In doing your due diligence, you have to look for a product, brand, and/or manufacturer with integrity throughout their supply chain and manufacturing process, one that follows thorough testing procedures.

When it comes to ginkgo biloba, the supplement industry is particularly concerned. According to a 2013 article by Nutra Ingredients USA, ginkgo adulteration is widespread in the supplement industry.5 Possible motives for this industry problem may include the amount of raw materials required (5 kg of ginkgo leaf material to make 1 kg of extract) and the cost and complexity of ginkgo manufacturing.

“The most common form of adulteration is the use of quercetin and rutin to artificially enhance the flavonol glycoside content.”6 This happens because flavonol glycosides are common in other botanical ingredients, which are substituted for actual ginkgo leaf material, while the terpene lactones are compounds unique to ginkgo leaves. Another adulterant to enter the market is Sophora japonica (Japanese pagoda tree), which contains flavonol glycoside levels similar to quercetin and rutin.7

Some industry surveys have found that as much as 70% of ginkgo products on the market may be adulterated.8 While Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council (ABC), disputes the high number, he acknowledges that “any amount of adulterated products is unacceptable.”9 Blumenthal also notes that industry data has pointed to “economically motivated adulteration.”10

In May of 2013, Ethical Naturals, Inc. (ENI) released a PhytoReport detailing an HPLC analysis method aimed at detecting Sophora japonica and Sophora and rutin adulteration of ginkgo supplements. ENI’s president, Cal Bewicke, said the company was sharing their method “to help resolve this problem within our industry.”11

Ginkgo leaf should be the only ingredient in ginkgo biloba supplements

What to Look For

So what are you, the consumer, to do? How can you ensure your money goes to a quality, unadulterated product? It may come down to simply the brand’s/manufacturer’s scruples, values, and integrity (or the lack thereof). That’s not something you can find on a label. Instead, it pays to not only research the type of supplement (ginkgo) you’re buying, but also the company/brand/manufacturer as well. FDA warning letters or actions against the company, industry reviews, business articles, and media reports will give at least an idea of who you’re supporting with your purchase. Negative online reviews are too easily falsified in the Internet age (and almost a game between competitors), so you’ll have to dig a bit deeper.

Certificates of Analysis: A Certificate of Analysis is an industry document that details many particulars about a raw material (ginkgo leaf extract, for instance), such as the material specifications, compound analysis, etc. Ask your brand for the Certificate of Analysis (COA) for their ginkgo product. Avoid any product from a company unwilling to share the information contained on a COA. For your complete peace of mind and in the spirit of authentic transparency, NutriGold provides detailed certificates of analysis for all products and can be read by visiting our Certificates of Analysis page.

Identity: Current Good Manufacturing Practices allow a manufacturer to perform just one identity test for each batch of ingredients. That doesn’t mean companies have to test all the material in a batch, only a sample of the batch. Look for companies that perform more rigorous identity testing on all raw materials received. Those are the companies that place a high value on verified, efficacious ingredients. Those are the companies trying to protect their consumer from receiving adulterated material in their finished goods.

Purity: The purity of an herbal supplement usually refers to outside contaminants, including pesticides, heavy metals, microorganisms, and other environmental substances hazardous to human health. You want to choose a product that follows USP’s monograph for contaminants, but there is another issue, extraction method. In the case of a ginkgo biloba extract, the extraction method may include a solvent, which makes it imperative you determine if the level of potentially toxic residual solvent meets USP standards.

Potency: Standards for ginkgo extracts dictate 24% flavonol glycosides and 6% terpene lactones. Be on the lookout for labels that don’t list the percentage of flavonol glycosides and terpene lactones. Without that information, you can’t be sure what you’re actually receiving. Even if you’re holding a bottle that does contain ginkgo biloba extract, the supplement may contain levels far below the standard, a supplement that may contain bulking agents or fillers.

Safety: Another thing to watch for is the amount, expressed as parts per million (ppm), of ginkgolic acids in the product. Ginkgolic acids, which are found in ginkgo leaves, are toxic compounds shown to have cytotoxic and allergenic properties. These toxic compounds will be present in the extract. The safety standard is less than five parts per million. More than five ppm can be dangerous. Avoid any product that doesn’t list the levels of ginkgolic acids on the label, as they may exceed the standard, safe level of five ppm. Ideally, look for ginkgo products with levels far below the standard.

Research carefully before choosing your ginkgo biloba supplement

For more information on NutriGold’s specific quality standards as well as our commitment to independent, third-party quality testing, feel free to check out our page detailing our feelings on accountability.

NUTRA Ingredients USA quoted ENI’s Bewicke as saying, “...fortunately there are many well-intended companies out there who strive to do the right thing by their customers, with or without an FDA warning, even if it puts them at a cost disadvantage.”12

Caveat emptor (Latin: Let the buyer beware) is a marketplace axiom that has held for thousands of years. The customer alone is responsible for making an informed and wise decision about their purchases. As the customer, it behooves you to scrutinize the ginkgo biloba supplement that interests you. Is it a quality supplement? Is it a pure supplement? Is it a potent supplement? In fact, are you receiving the actual supplement (ginkgo) you’re paying for in the first place? If you do your homework beforehand, you’ll find the ginkgo supplement that suits you and is the most beneficial for you. Happy hunting!

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