A Brief History of Adulteration of Herbs, Spices, and Botanical Drugs
by Steven Foster
2011; American Botanical Council
an April 1896 lecture on drugs and food adulteration delivered to the
state medical society in Los Angeles, California, San Francisco
physician G. F. Hanson suggested that adulteration and sophistication
began with the earliest human interactions.
the memorable occasion upon which young Eve palmed off the green
apple on old man Adam, more or less fraud in food handling has
occurred, as opportunity offered and occasion for profit suggested.
In the adulteration of drugs even more elasticity of conscience has
been necessary to permit the almost unlimited sophistication which
has been practice from time immemorial.”1
the beginnings of civilization, once commerce develops, adulteration
follows. Adulteration, falsification, substitution, and
sophistication of willful intent or wanton neglect have evolved,
along with the trade of one item of value for another item of equal
or greater value. In the context of drugs, loosely defined as
substances intended to benefit health or cure disease, adulteration
results in accidental, negligent, or intentional variations in
identity, strength, purity, and expected outcomes from a named or at
least implied identity of a drug, even if the standard of identity
was merely an organoleptic (sensory observation) expectation. In
modern times (the past 500 years), adulteration by intent or neglect
of defined professional standards is perhaps even more nefarious. As
scientific method or professional expertise usually offers at least
the potential of authentication, falsification generally involves
knowingly offering or labeling a substance as something that it is
may involve offering one substance in place of another more expensive
ingredient, or substituting one substance for another that might not
be readily available or available only at a much higher price. If
knowingly offered by both seller and buyer as a “substitute” for
another substance, then the practice may be socially (and
economically) acceptable, depending upon the cultural context. As
Traditional Chinese Medicine became part of China’s national public
healthcare system in the mid-1950s, local species of important herbal
drugs were reasonably substituted for the official source plant with
the knowledge that the substitute was less potent. For example, in
the 1985 Pharmacopoeia
of the People’s Republic of China,
with respect to the official source plant for the herb jin
(Caprifoliaceae, Japanese honeysuckle flowers). Three species, L.
hypoglauca, L. confusa,
are listed as interchangeable substitutes for L.
An additional 9 species are acknowledged to be acceptable as local
substitutes in specific regions. In this example, when the “official”
species is unavailable, local substitutes are acceptable.3
or the use of sophisticants to change the expected nature of a
substance or product may involve premeditated and in some cases
elaborate methods to introduce adulteration and falsification to a
substance or product. An example is the elaborate attempt to make
fluidextract of ginger more palatable as a way to attain a cheap
drunk during the prohibition of alcohol in the United States during
the 1920s by systematically adding plasticizers such as dibutyl
phthalate and ethylene glycol (antifreeze) to the illegal beverage
disguised as a medicinal “fluidextract.” Finally,
tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate was added to the extract to smooth out the
taste—an infamous example of sophistication that led to thousands
of tragic toxic reactions, the story of “ginger jake.”
the purposes of this article, permit this author to simplify the
definition of the broad concepts of causes and manifestations of
adulteration common terms: An adulterated product is one in which the
customer does not receive what he or she is led to believe
Sophisticants, and Falsification of Botanical Medicines in History:
of the Promise of Science
sophistications and adulteration are described, though not
systematically, by the famous Greco-Roman medical and natural history
writers, including Dioscorides, Pliny the Elder, Theophrastus, and
Galen, often in the context of organoleptic variations in taste and
smell or physical differences such as color.2
the first century Greek physician in service to Rome, Pedanius
Dioscorides (40-90 CE), observed methods of detecting sophisticants
for balsam, identified as Balsamodendron
perhaps a synonym of Commiphora
(Burseraceae). The taxonomy of this plant is currently unresolved;
it is referred to as a synonym of C.
in the American Herbal Product Association’s
Herbs of Commerce
edition, under the common name balm-of-Gilead (oleo-gum-resin), with
the synonyms Mecca balsam, Mecca myrrh, and opobalsamum.4
said of Balsamon:
it is adulterated in a variety of ways. For some mix it with
ointments, as for instance terebinth (Pistacia
Anacardiaceae), flower of henna (Lawsonia
Lythraceae), mastic oil (Pistacia
Anacardiaceae), lily oil (Liliaceae), oil of ben tree nut (Moringa
he, honey, cerate of myrtle (Myrtus
Myrtaceae), or very thin unguent of henna flowers. Thus this kind can
easily be detected. For when dropped onto a wollen cloth and
thoroughly washed out, that which is pure leaves neither stain nor
spot, but the adulterated juice does not do. The milk, when poured on
milk or water, dissolving immediately, becomes milky, but the
adulterated floats like oil, whirling and spreading out in a
star-like manner. Yet, as time goes by even the pure one
deteriorates, thickening by itself.”5
noted that frankincense (Boswellia
Burseraceae) was easily flammable, and the smoke was clear with a
analysis of Dioscorides’ Materia
offers 40 adulteration examples, 30 of which include methods of
detection. Most included organoleptic and other physical or
qualitative distinctions, in addition to suggesting that geographic
origin or an often-ambiguous botanical description might serve to
distinguish the presence of adulterants or suggest purity. Physical
determination included the flame test (flammability or lack thereof),
displacement, weight, organoleptic tests, and solubility, among the
most often used methods.2,6
today a simple flame test is useful for any traveler to Peru. When a
merchant attempts to sell a garment or textile claimed to be made of
“baby alpaca wool,” one need only pull a lighter or match from
one’s pocket and ignite a small thread to test for the common
spurious substitute—polyester. If the thread burns cleanly without
a hint of melting, it has a chance of being the genuine article. If
the thread shrivels and melts like plastic, one is likely being
offered alpaca-like soft polyester. Societal response to adulteration
throughout history seeks to prevent wool from being pulled over one’s
the Elder (23–79 CE)—the Roman naturalist, author, and
philosopher—wrote the encyclopedic work Naturalis
which remains one of the most important accounts of natural history
in first century Rome. Pliny wrote of various means of authenticating
not only herbs and spices, but also other natural substances such as
silver. Placing a piece of silver on a shovel and thrusting it into a
kiln at white heat could ascertain the best quality of silver. The
best quality, he asserted, would remain perfectly white. If the
silver turned a reddish color, it was an inferior grade. If it turned
black, it was worthless. But fraud has found its way even into this
test; if the shovels are kept in human urine, the silver shaving is
stained by it during the process of being burnt and counterfeits
whiteness. There is also one way of testing polished silver with a
person’s breath—if it at once forms surface moisture and
dissipates the vapor.7
generally about adulterations, Pliny lamented: “…the same
fraudulence which is so extremely ingenious in every department of
life has devised an inferior material.”8
ancient Athens, a special inspector was charged with detecting and
halting wine adulteration. One wine purveyor enjoyed the reputation
of excelling at adding ingenious sophisticants, imparting the flavors
of both age and maturity to new wine. Galen of Pergamum (129-201 CE),
physician to Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, suspicious of purveyors
of drugs, characterized such merchants as “roguish dealers of petty
born a year after Theophrastus’s death in 288 BCE, is often held as
the first to apply scientific methods to the detection of
adulteration by using concepts akin to modern scientific methodology.
He famously applied a measurable physical constant—the displacement
of the volume of water by an object placed in water— to show that
something other than gold was the base metal in the crown of King
Hiero (of Syracuse, in modern-day Sicily). Therefore, he used what is
known today as specific gravity to measure metal purity. Subjective
empirical opinion based on the knowledge and experience of a trader,
buyer, or observer of nature was displaced by emerging science.2
of Low Expectation: Medieval Centuries
of medieval Islam, assimilating the works of Greek and Roman authors
into a more sophisticated pharmacy, relied on control systems of
religious oversight. Inspections and the presence of an amin
the preparation of compound medicines helped to thwart adulteration.
An oath was required that no change to the mixture would occur after
left the premises. The use of false weights and measures or
adulteration was controlled with a fear of God, the threat of severe
punishment, and impromptu weekly inspections. Adulteration was
recognized. Controls were implemented.2
ancient times to the 17th century, the collective evolution of
experience and empirical knowledge further refined organoleptic
nuance and specificity. The literature from the 12th
century forward is rich with specific examples of attempts to
adulterate virtually any spice or drug of value in order to serve a
demand outstripped by supply and tempted by the opportunity for
wealth. Municipalities, medical professionals, societies, organized
religions, regional authorities, national governments, and kings
imposed responses with consequences for those who strove to prey on
the void of verification.
is replete with accounts of adulteration recognized in myriad
substances—from bread and flour to alcoholic beverages, foods of
all manner, and even attempts to add alloys of little value to
in this author’s lifetime that American coinage has moved from the
value of the precious metals the coins contain to alloys of no
intrinsic value beyond the denomination assigned to them. From
ancient times to today, society has punished the counterfeiters of
the “coin of the realm” with stiff fines and sentences. Societies
throughout history have targeted and punished the baker, butcher,
vintner, product manufacturer, and druggist who adulterate the
merchandise they sell and hence adulterate the very construct of
public trust as a social concept.
the mid-11th century, Europe began to experience a revival of the
arts. In 1070, construction began on the London Bridge and
Westminster Abbey. In 1095, the first Crusade intermingled Christian
militants with established schools of higher learning in Salerno,
Seville, Toledo, and Cordova. Guilds of students formed to establish
places of study and mutual protection of collective interests. These
associations led to the creation of universities (universitas
means association), such as Paris in 1110, Bologna in 1113, Oxford in
1167, Cambridge in 1209, Padua in 1222, and Naples in 1224. Pharmacy
was part of the course of medicine. By the 12th
century, guilds were formalized in England to protect the collective
interests of spice traders.9
1100, the Ancient Guild of Pepperers was organized in London, and, in
1345, was formalized as a fraternity receiving permission from Edward
III to incorporate, though the Guild did not receive a formal charter
until 1428. In 1373, the fraternity was called the Company of
Grossers. Three years later, it changed its name to the Company of
Grocers of London. The Company’s name is derived from the Latin,
meaning one who buys and sells in gross (en
or wholesale merchants. In 1453, the Grocers’ Company was entrusted
with the King’s Beam, officially weighing all goods sold by the
Aver-de-Poys weight or the peso
It was also charged with the duty of garbling, or preventing the
adulteration of spices and drugs. Garbling is sifting, sorting,
cleaning, separating, and culling to remove physically unwanted soil,
dirt, etc., or separate particles by size and/or quality.
in the 15th
century, the Grocers’ Company consolidated its power and was given
the exclusive right to garble drugs and spices and examine the drugs
and prescriptions sold by apothecaries. They exercised their
authority over apothecaries by imposing fines for any adulterated or
century progressed, the application of movable type and oil-based ink
by the German Johannes Gänsfleisch, better known as Gutenberg,
revolutionized the availability of information with the printed book,
starting with the relatively low-priced and high-quality Bible,
published in 1455. In a few short years the Elzevir Press was
established in Holland, followed by the Caxton Press in England.
Second to the production of religious works was the production of
herbals, initiating the great age of early modern herbals and works
in the period from 1500 to 1800. Details on the source plant in
herbal traditions and their use moved from the experienced master and
the apprentice to the literate citizen. The 16th
centuries saw a proliferation not only of herbals, but privately
printed formularies, commentaries, and compendia. The modern concept
of the botanical garden, primarily instituted for studying medicinal
plants, proliferated in Padua in 1553, Florence in 1544, and Paris
in 1570. The futile attempt of Columbus to discover a route to the
Spice Islands led to the discovery of continents new to European
experience. Magellan and Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe.
Portugal surpassed Venice as a center for the drug and spice trade.
Global trade found new meaning and the information age had begun.9
Method Applied to Drug Adulteration and Verification
17th century saw further definition and separation of professional
classes such as apothecaries and merchants. In 1617, King James gave
the Apothecaries Guild a separate charter and independence from the
Grocers’ Guild, restricted only to practitioners of pharmacy. In
1624, when the Grocers’ Guild petitioned the King to reverse the
1617 Apothecaries’ Guild charter, King James responded, “Grocers
are but merchants; the business of the apothecary is a mystery;
wherefore I think it fitting that they should be a corporation of
the late 17th century, the mystery of art and craft yielded to the
new, emerging force of science. Application of the scientific method
of physical science to the detection of adulterants in drugs was
heightened by the 1690 work of Sir Robert Boyle (1627-1691) in
Hydrostatica: or Hydrostatics applied to the Materia Medica.
For the first time, Boyle’s scientific method of measuring specific
gravity, borrowed with credit from Archimedes’ underlying theories,
was used to expose and rectify intentional adulteration of drugs.11
first national English pharmacopeia in the modern sense—in which
the medical and pharmacy
attempted to agree collectively on a professional standard of the
if only by agreeing on a list of what to prescribe—is the
First issued in a now very rare, typographical error-ridden printing
on May 7, 1618, the work was quickly canceled and withdrawn with
embarrassment, then replaced with the “official” version printed
on December 7, 1618. This ushered in an era of national
dispensatories, compendia, and pharmacopeias, backed by legal
standing, which, by scientific consensus, defined the “standard”
of and “standards” for drugs of the day. Verification of purity
and imposed standards of identity would require public outcry and 2
slow centuries of development.12,13
the late 17th
century, the professions of medicine and pharmacy were becoming more
distinct in England, with druggists and grocers supplying wholesale
retail pharmacists who compounded physicians’ prescriptions.
Efforts to draw distinctions between the professions began much
earlier from elsewhere in Europe: the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II
separated the professions of physicians and apothecaries in southern
Italy in 1240.
such as Pomet’s A
Complete History of Druggs,
first published in French in 1694, then in a first English edition in
1712, were attempts to expose the growing disdain toward the practice
of adulteration. The anonymous author of the 1737 English translation
was dedicated to Dr. Hans Sloane14
(1660-1753), physician, collector, and founder of the British Museum
as well as the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. Sloane’s patronage
was sought, in part, as protection from exposé in the work on
. . it is not easily apprehended how much the Publick suffers in the
Sale, which is daily made of I know not what sophisticated and
decay’d Druggs, which are not capable of producing the Effects that
are design’d by them, and expected from them, either to restore or
preserve the Health of Mankind. We may yet be more surpriz’d at the
fatal Mischief that flows from Mens Ignorance in the common Choice of
Druggs; and that nothing is more frequent in Druggists and
Apothecaries Shops than adulterated Medicines, which deserve not
least Tittle of those pompous Names, but which they enhance the
Prices of them.”14
the author asks for Sloane’s indulgence, “Therefore as one can
scarce discover their Works of Darkness without suffering by the
Malignity of their Tongues, who so undeservedly make a Gain of
Peoples Credulity, I stand in Need not only of an Advocate but a
describes the quality of many drugs and suspected adulterants. In the
book’s first entry on wormseed (Chenopodium
the authors suggest that one choose seeds that are plump, of a
greenish cast, with the typical distinctive flavor, and clean with
nothing sticking to the seed. It should not be too green, and the
reader is warned that the seed of southernwood (Artemisia
Asteraceae) not be imposed upon the buyer. The seeds of the latter
are larger, longer, and of a darker green color.14
such subtle distinctions require that the buyer be knowledgeable and
trusting of the purveyor.
the case of cinnamon (Cinnamomum
Lauraceae), Pomet warns that oil of cinnamon may be mixed with spirit
of wine, and with salt of tarter added “so that those who buy an
Ounce of this Oil, have not above half an Ounce for their Money. Tho’
the Cheat is easy to discover two Ways: The first is, when looking
into the Bottle in which it is contain’d, you may observe the
Humidity that is with in. The second is, by dipping the Point of your
Knife in, and putting it into the Candle; if there is any Mixture of
the Spirit of Wine, it will take fire presently; but, on the contrary
to that, when it is pure, it will do nothing by smoke.”14
Iridaceae), Pomet’s book notes, “...there is a great deal of
Saffron-Powder sold, so it is generally a Cheat upon honest People,
that being almost only sold in Powder, which has been us’d before
hand by the Druggist, or Apothecary, to Make Tinctures, Spirits, or
the like, with.”14
was then redried and sold as powdered saffron.
organizations that evolved from guilds began to form and self-police
the shops in London, but the nefarious practices continued and gained
even greater levels of sophistication. The popular acceptance of the
science of chemistry and its rise as the scientific foundation of a
liberal education in the second half of the 18th century set the
stage for a popular uprising against adulterators. The modern
era—still evolving today—in which scientific theory, analytical
methods, and reproducible techniques permit accurate measures of
purity, identity, and detection of sophisticants—starts with the
landmark 1820 work of Frederick Accum: A
Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons.
brewers, vintners, and “pepperers” were among the most suspect of
tradesmen he exposed. The title page of Accum’s work famously
declared, “There is death in the pot.”15
Accum himself was sometimes referred to as “old death in the pot.”
described himself as an operative chemist and lecturer on practical
chemistry, mineralogy, and on chemistry applied to the arts and
manufacturers. By the time Accum’s Treatise
was published, chemistry had become the central science and an
“indispensable” subject in a liberal education. Accum was
celebrated in social circles of England among the most active of
laborers in the field of chemistry, particularly in practical applied
chemistry in daily life. Born in Germany, he came to England in 1793,
and by 1800 had established a laboratory at Compton Street in Soho,
where he sold chemical preparations, and established himself as a
public and private lecturer in chemistry, operating out of his own
home. In 1809, he was appointed Professor of Chemistry at Surrey. By
1820, he had published 9 treatises on various subjects relative to
chemistry and the philosophy of chemistry. One work published in
Amusement: Comprising a Series of Curious and Instructive Experiments
in Chemistry, which are easily performed, and unattended by
be regarded as the first primer on chemical entertainment and
education, paving the way for the popular chemistry set of the 20th
century. Accum became a frequent witness in courts and in Committees
of Parliament, explaining processes and facts pertinent to chemical
science. His popularity as a lay and academic lecturer, plus
contributions to scientific and popular periodicals, set the stage
for publication of his Treatise
in 1820, and the development of public awareness and reaction that
was to lead to the implementation of a series of laws, regulations,
and acts that are the foundation of modern food and drug laws.16
was obviously an industry insider. He knew what really happened in
the marketplace. Spurious black pepper (Piper
Piperaceae) was manufactured with a mixture of spent linseed (Linum
Linaceae) cakes, powdered clay, and a little cayenne (Capsicum
pressed through a sieve then rolled inside a cask to produced
granules of appropriate size. Once he exposed the adulteration, he
offered methods for detection:
factitious pepper-corns have of late been detected mixed with genuine
pepper is a fact sufficiently known. Such an adulteration may prove,
in many instances of household economy,
and prejudicial to those who ignorantly make use of the spurious
article… The mode of detecting the fraud is easy. It is only
necessary to throw a sample of the suspected pepper into a bowl of
water; the artificial pepper-corns fall to powder, whilst the true
pepper remains whole.”15
exposed the smoking gun that implicated traders. Ground pepper
dealers sophisticated the product with genuine pepper mixed with
pepper warehouse sweepings. In the wholesale markets, ground pepper
“P.D.” signified pepper dust, and “D.P.D.” represented dust
(dirt) of pepper dust. Accum used scientific evidence that was
supplemented by the traders’ own designations to expose spurious
commodities. Great Britain’s “Pepper Act” of July 5, 1819,
imposed a fine of 100 pounds on those in possession with intent to
deliver the adulterated pepper.15
chemist shops, Accum revealed, used a liberal amount of white
porcelain clay (pipe clay) from Cornwall as a substitute for sugar in
formulating lozenges of substances not soluble in water, such as
ginger, cream of tartar, or magnesia. He quoted Dr. T. Lloyd, who,
upon suspecting the fraud, went to a prominent chemist’s shop to
demand an explanation. The chemist informed him that 2 kinds of
ginger lozenges were kept for sale. One was priced at 3 pence per
ounce, the other at 6 pence per ounce. The higher-priced lozenges
that contained pure sugar were sold to regular customers. The
half-priced version, cut with pipe clay, was manufactured for those
customers that were fond of haggling over the price and content to
“enjoy the delight of getting it cheap.”15
reported on other food preparation practices that would lead to
unintentional, though predictable poisoning. Innkeepers in the north
of England prepared mint salad by bruising and grinding the leaves in
a large wooden bowl. However, to bruise and process the leaves more
efficiently a ball of lead weighing 12-14 pounds was rolled in the
bowl, “and portions of the lead are ground off at every revolution
of the ponderous instrument.”15
commodities such as coffee (Coffea
Rubiaceae) or tea (Camellia
Theaceae) were often subjected to cutting with other substances or
outright substitution with other ingredients. Accum reported on
several cases of tea adulteration for which convictions were
delivered in the courts, as reported in London newspapers including
and the Courier
from March through July of 1818. Edmund Rhodes was charged with
dying, fabricating, and manufacturing large quantities of tea made
from a mix of sloe leaves (Prunus
Rosaceae), ash leaves (Fraxinus
Oleaceae), elder leaves (Sambucus
Adoxaceae) and leaves of a certain other tree. The accused was
convicted and fined 500 pounds. The falsified tea was made by mixing
together the green leaves of the various plants, boiling them, baking
them on an iron plate until dry, and then rubbing them by hand to
mimic the curled, rolled leaf of the genuine article. Black tea was
colored with logwood and spurious green tea was colored with
carbonate of copper. Accum gives detailed methods for detecting the
presence of logwood in black tea and copper additives to falsified
green tea. Accum also notes that “Mr. Twining, an eminent
tea-merchant, asserts, that ‘the leaves of spurious tea are boiled
in a copper, with copperas [also known as ferrous sulfate or green
vitriol] and sheep’s dung.’”15
is the Silent
food adulteration. Its publication marked a societal watershed moment
where public outrage spurned a slow struggle toward legislative
control. A popular anti-adulteration movement emerged from the
Response by the Professional Medical Community
discontent inevitably led to professional action. In England,
leading professionals in the newly emerging academic field of
pharmacy were convinced that the problem had to be self-policed from
within the profession. The Pharmaceutical Society was formed in 1841,
conceived in the spring of that year in the home of Jacob Bell
(1810-1859) in Oxford.17
Bell was a pharmacist (he described himself as a “pharmaceutical
chemist,” chemist being the term now synonymous with pharmacist in
the United Kingdom) who worked to reform the profession with Jonathan
Pereira (1810-1853), an early pioneer of pharmacology and author of
the 2-volume The
Elements of Material Medica
and other works, along with Daniel Bell Hanbury (1825-1875),
botanist, pharmacist, and co-author (with F.A. Flückiger) of the
1879 classic Pharmacographia.18
conceived of the idea of the Pharmaceutical Society.
a health advocate, also famously championed opposition to the
consumption of alcohol and tobacco, and was a vegetarian. At the
time of this meeting Hanbury was still a teenager, yet about to enter
pharmacy school, and at age 16, had just begun work in his father’s
pharmacy. On April 15, 1841, at a public meeting at the Crown &
Anchor in Bloomsbury, the Pharmaceutical Society was formerly
chartered, with the express purpose of educating retail chemists and
druggists on the incidence and techniques of adulteration, and how to
avoid purchase of adulterated products from wholesalers. The Society
also sought to establish professional standards for pharmacists and
established the Pharmaceutical
which in its early years published many papers on the subject of
Reaction in the UK
1855, Britain’s Parliamentary Select Committee—appointed to
investigate adulteration of food, drinks, and drugs—issued its
report with landmark testimony.20
Armed with microscopy, chemistry, and physics, Arthur Hill Hassall,
MD, testified that annatto (Bixa
Bixaceae) seed was adulterated with chalk, red lead, turmeric
Zingiberaceae), salt, soap, and rye (Secale
Poaceae) flour. Cayenne pepper might contain ground rice, mustard
husk, sawdust, and salt, skillfully colored with red lead or
bisulphate of mercury. The list of substances tested with an obvious
result of pervasive adulteration shocked the public. Hassall, too,
was quick to explain that his list of adulterants was by no means
exhaustive, but represented only what could be reproducibly detected
by microscope and chemistry.
expert testimony of Hassall and others at the hearings lit the fire
of developing laws and regulations leading to modern controls.
Hassall championed the use of the microscope in detecting
adulterants, ushering in a new discipline of expertise in the use of
microscopy in authenticating food and drugs and exposing adulterants
they may contain.21
(1817-1894) began his medical studies in 1834 as an apprentice to his
uncle, Sir James Murray. His interest in microscopy and botany,
particularly freshwater algae, led to publication of a landmark study
in 1850, “A Microscopic Examination of the Water Supplied to the
Inhabitants of London and the Suburban Districts.” The work became
influential in the development of reforms in management of public
water supplies. His many papers on food and drug adulteration
followed, leading directly to England’s 1860 Food Adulteration Act.
During his lifetime he was regarded as “the father of public
analysis” and the “Apostle of Anti-Adulteration.”
of Arthur Hill Hassall,
author Edwy Godwin Clayton described Hassall’s most conspicuous
public service as, “the application of the microscope, for the
first time on an important scale, in the analysis of food and drugs,
and in the determination of the exact nature of the living organisms
found in water supplied for the public use.”22
the mid-19th century, widespread adulteration of foods attracted the
most attention of regulators and enforcement officials, partly
because food adulteration was so pervasive. Detecting drug
adulteration proved to be more nuanced, requiring regulations that
not only detected spurious additions to a product, but that also
sought to maintain standards of quality and potency toward a
predictable therapeutic action at a specific dose.23
Rise of the Anti-Adulteration Movement in the United States
anti-adulteration movement grew in the United States at the same time
as those in the rest of the world. In 1838, William Hodgson Jr.
began a regular series in the American
Journal of Pharmacy,
“Notes on Falsifications and Adulterations.” “It cannot be
denied that this evil is rapidly increasing, and perhaps as much so
in the department of Pharmacy as in any other,” he wrote. “In
this state of things the question naturally occurs, whether it be not
honest pharmaceutists and physician to do all that single or combined
efforts can accomplish to protect the community from its effect.”24
of chemistry and natural history at Rutgers University, physician and
botanist Lewis Caleb Beck publicized the issue in an 1846 work
of Various Substances Used in Medicine and the Arts, with the Means
of Detecting Them.25
scientific authority and ability to communicate scientific concepts
in plain language—while also providing simple, practical techniques
to identify sophisticants—rallied public and professional attention
to the subject. Two years later, in the spring of 1848, time
coalesced around the need for federal legislation in response to the
growing awareness and disdain toward adulterated drugs, in
particular, imported drugs. The Colleges of Pharmacy of Philadelphia
and New York, the state of Mississippi, the fledgling American
Medical Association, and M.J. Bailey, MD—the drug examiner of the
New York customhouse—came together to petition Congress to take
action. On June 26, 1848, Congress passed the first statute meant to
block the importation of deteriorated or adulterated drugs, titled,
“An Act to prevent the importation of adulterated and spurious
drugs and medicine.”26
practice, the requirement in the law that imported medicinal raw
materials conform to the pharmacopeias and dispensatories of the
United States, Edinburgh, London, France, or Germany was difficult to
enforce because the required works did not have a uniform single
standard and existing customs officials had little knowledge of
pharmacopeial standards and methods.17
In many cases, too, there was no method to detect the adulterant.
order to further enforcement, Dr. Bailey, Special Examiner of the
class of Merchandise in the United States Custom at the Port of New
York, produced a report relative to the practical application of the
law. The law took effect on July 12, 1848. Before one year had
passed, by June 1849, Bailey had rejected importation of about 90,000
lbs of adulterated plant drugs and other medicines, “which met from
its inception, the open, determined and unremitting hostility of a
God-forsaken portion of our trading community.”27
the items rejected were 13,120 lbs of “Spurious Yellow Bark” in
October 1848; 12,800 lbs of Spurious Yellow Cinchona Bark (Cinchona
spp., Rubiaceae) in December 1848; and various shipments of rhubarb
Polygonaceae), opium (Papaver
Burseraceae), senna (Senna
Fabaceae) leaf and/or fruit, and other drugs. Professional
organizations had been successful in a public response to
adulteration in the form of legislation, and had put the merchant
class on notice that spurious adulteration would no longer be
tolerated, setting the stage for legislation and regulations to
follow until today.
a May 24, 1895, lecture, Willis G. Tucker—director of the New York
State Board of Health Laboratory—outlined some of the differences
between the adulteration of foods and drugs. Intentionally adding
inferior ingredients to make weight in foods—such as adding sugar
to maple syrup, roasted cereals to ground coffee, or “all sorts of
rubbish to ground spices”28—is
not the type of debasement commonly met with drugs. He suggested that
the adulteration of drugs can be more subtle than the adulteration of
foods and does not necessarily involve the willful and direct
addition or substitution with foreign substances, but instead
offering articles of inferior quality or of inferior potency, or, in
some cases, excessive strength. Citing the law of the State of New
York at the time (Public Health Law, Chapter 661, 1893), Tucker
outlined the conditions for which legal adulteration was defined:
If when sold under or by a name recognized in the United
it differs from the standard of strength, quality, or purity laid
If when sold under or by a name not recognized by the United
but which is found in some other pharmacopeia or standard work on
materia medica, it differs materially from the standard of strength,
quality, or purity laid down in such work.
If its strength or purity fall below the professed standard under
which it is sold.29
angry public with science on its side prompted legislative action in
Great Britain and culminated in the United States with passage of the
Food and Drug Act of 1906. The term
has long been associated with adulteration. Indeed, some adulterators
have gone to great lengths to disguise their misdeeds, as in the case
of sophistication of tea, described by Accum in 1820. In the annals
of adulteration, particularly in the United States, no case of
sophistication acquired more infamy than the “ginger jake”
incident of the 1930s.
most famous incidence of adulteration leading to life-changing,
crippling effects of epidemic proportion grew out of society’s
circumvention of the 1919 Volstead Act that created prohibition.
High-proof liquor was banned. Honesty in labeling imposed by the Pure
Food and Drugs Act of 1906 required patent medicines to list their
ingredients such as opium, morphine, heroin (all derived from P.
cocaine (derived from Erythroxylum
Erythroxylaceae), or cannabis (Cannabis
Cannabaceae), along with the alcohol that inevitably represented the
bulk of the volume and weight of many a patent medicine swill.
listed in the United
(USP) or that claimed to be a certain type of medicine—such as a
fluidextract or elixir, including those offered as patent
medicines—were required to meet USP standards. For example, to be
labeled a fluidextract, the product had to contain 4% solids. In the
case of a fluidextract of ginger (Zingiber
root in the form of “Essence of Jamaica Ginger,” ginger jake
delivered 70% alcohol in the form of a patent medicine. In an effort
to enforce prohibition, government agents would seize products from
store shelves or manufacturers and test it for the percentage of
solids. If it failed the test, the manufacturer was forced to improve
the percentage of ginger solids. The taste of the USP ginger extract
was not inviting. In order to make it more palatable, some
manufacturers adulterated the extract with molasses, glycerin, or
castor oil to mask the taste. Random sampling of suspected
adulterated lots by the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Industrial
Alcohol led to the confiscation of adulterated product, which in turn
inspired more creativity by those manufacturing ginger jake for a
cheap, illegal drunk.29
shady brother-in-law businessmen from Boston, Harry Gross and Max
Reisman, worked diligently to circumvent the government chemists. In
1921, Gross obtained a Prohibition Bureau permit to handle alcohol
for various manufacturing purposes, but it was revoked within 2
years. Reisman shipped 5 gallons of pear (Pyrus
Rosaceae) extract to an Indian reservation and was indicted for
violating federal law prohibiting the sale of alcohol on
reservations. The Prohibition Bureau was convinced the pair was
bootleggers and found a still at their country house in 1927, though
no arrest was made. By 1928, they became wholesale manufacturers of
ginger extract, which was shipped around the country in barrels
labeled “liquid medicine in bulk.” In 1929, they sought an
adulterant less expensive than castor oil and more difficult to
detect. They tried the plasticizer dibutyl phthalate, fusel oil,
butyl carbitol, and ethylene glycol (antifreeze), but none quite fit
the bill for them. Finally they settled on another plasticizer, an
industrial chemical used to finish lacquers, leather treatments, and
airplane finishes—tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate (TOCP).30
February of 1930, Oklahoma physicians, including Ephraim Goldfain of
Oklahoma City, began seeing patients with neurological problems. By
the end of the day on February 27, 1930, Goldfain
seen 4 patients with the same condition. One of the patients informed
the physician that 65 people in the same area of Oklahoma City were
afflicted with the same symptoms. City health supervisor E. Miles
joined Goldfain in interviewing more than 30 people, and discovered
that they had all ingested Jamaica ginger extract in the previous 2
weeks. They unsuccessfully attempted to discover a toxic compound in
the ginger extract. Other physicians from New York to California
began to see similar cases. Early in 1930, the Treasury Department’s
Bureau of Industrial Alcohol discovered the presence of TOCP in
offending samples of ginger extract. Despite the fact that by
mid-March of 1930 the emerging epidemic was reported in newspapers
around the country, it was already too late for tens of thousands of
imbibers of ginger jake. Many of the victims were single, poor
African Americans or downtrodden, poverty-stricken veterans of World
of TOCP poisoning, following initial gastrointestinal problems, had a
latency period of 10-20 days. The proceeding neurotoxicity included
pain and paresthesia of the lower extremities, then progressive
muscle weakness usually developing into paralysis of the lower
extremities. The paralysis often left rubbery function of the lower
limbs, creating a dragging gait or shuffle, requiring one foot to be
physically moved in front of the other with the hands. The symptoms
were the result of axonal degeneration in peripheral nerves and
degeneration of anterior horn cells from the spinal cord. No legal
remedy was available for the victims despite the best efforts of the
United Victims of Ginger Paralysis, formed in May of 1931 in
Oklahoma. Product liability law barely existed. Federal laws to
create class action suits were yet to be conceived. Gross and Reisman
were eventually to plead guilty to violations of the Prohibition laws
as well as the Pure Food and Drug Act. They convinced the judge that
they were only middlemen and bargained their way to probation.
Gross’s probation was revoked by a California judge when, in the
plea bargain, he failed to mention a shipment of 2 barrels of ginger
jake shipped 2 weeks after the stories of the jake-induced toxicity
had reached the papers. He served 2 years’ prison time, starting in
April of 1932. Brother-in-law Reisman served no jail time.30,31
ginger jake epidemic spurned a cultural response. Numerous blues
artists wrote and recorded jake leg songs. John Morgan, MD, a
self-described pharmacoethnomusicologist, compiled a collection of
jake leg blues songs issued by Stash Records in 1977. [See: “The
Jamaica Ginger-Paralysis Episode of the 1930s” by John
28-35, Summer 1995]. A simple search of “Jake Leg Blues” at an
online music store will net many examples.31
Several movies, television episodes, and documentaries also
incorporate or cover the story, many of which can be discovered with
a simple Google search.
and the Hairy Baby
the late 1960s and early 1970s, a Chinese herb entered the herb
trade, known to botanists as Eleutherococcus
Araliaceae). Products called “Wuchaseng,” “Wujiaseng,” and
“Siberian ginseng” appeared in the market. There was no
historical precedence in Chinese traditions for applying the
qualifier “seng” to E.
“Seng” refers to fleshy rootstocks used in Chinese medicine as
tonics. “Gin-seng,” for example is one “seng”-producing
plant. As E.
a woody root, it is not a “seng” by traditional Chinese
Clearly, marketers attempted to associate this member of the
botanical family Araliaceae (ginseng family) with its higher-priced
cousins in the genus Panax
as Asian ginseng [P.
American ginseng [P.
This shrubby member of the ginseng family was widely sold as
“Siberian ginseng,” prompting confusion and controversy in the
herb trade for more than 30 years, leading one trader to ask if you
could call something ginseng if it is harvested with a chainsaw! In
the first edition of Herbs
(1992), the American Herbal Products Association included “eleuthero”
as the standard common name for the plant’s products in trade. The
debate relative to application of common names in trade of E.
resolved (in the United States) when the Farm Security and Rural
Investment Act of 2002 included a provision that effectively banned
the use of the name “ginseng” in product labeling or promotional
material in any commercial herb product except those products
containing members of the genus Panax.
Therefore, with the stroke of President George W. Bush’s pen on May
13, 2002, use of the term “Siberian ginseng” in reference to E.
in US commerce was banned.33
was involved in a case from the early 1990s that provides an example
of vicarious substitution involving unintentional product
mislabeling, but nevertheless would fit under the definitions of
adulteration presented by Willis Tucker above, as the substance in
question was defined in a monograph in the English edition of
of the People’s Republic of China.34
The of case of eleuthero adulteration evolved as the result of a
letter to the editor in the December 12, 1990, issue of the Journal
of the American Medical Association.
A Canadian physician and colleagues reported on a purported case of
neonatal androgenization, associated with maternal “ginseng” use
in Canada—the so-called “hairy baby” story.35
The isolated case was attributed to the mother’s use of “pure
Siberian ginseng.” The authors erroneously confused eleuthero with
in the publication. Shortly after the story appeared, longtime
Editor and American Botanical Council Advisory Board member, Dennis
Awang, PhD—then head of the now defunct Natural Products Section of
Health and Welfare Canada (now Health Canada)—performed an analysis
of the plant material in question, and found that the product, though
labeled as “Siberian ginseng,” actually contained the root of
another herb, Periploca
Waller et al., (1992) performed pharmacological tests on rats with
the implicated plant material from the case and observed no
androgenicity, and concluded that, “the effects observed were
specific to humans and possibly related to an undetermined
peculiarity of the subject patient.”38
Chinese tradition, the whole root and lateral roots of E.
are known as Ci-wu-jia.
the bark of E.
is the official source of Wu-jia-pi
in the Chinese Pharmacopoeia. The bark of E.
is sometimes used as a substitute. Ci-wu-jia,
the root of E.
is a separate article of materia
in Chinese tradition. An unrelated plant, Periploca
a vine in the milkweed family (Asclepidaceae), is known in
Traditional Chinese Medicine as Wu-jia
(bark), and Bei-wu-jia-pi
of the Chinese names for E.
apparently led to unintended confusion among American importers and
presumably Chinese exporters. Hence Periploca
the American herb trade as “Siberian ginseng.” Over the last 20
years or so, P.
has on several occasions been identified as an adulterant to Siberian
ginseng. That confusion extends to the scientific literature.
case report by a Canadian physician perpetuated that confusion. The
physician presented a case report in which a 74-year-old man who had
been taking the cardiotonic drug digoxin for many years had
abnormally elevated levels of digoxin in his blood. Digoxin levels
remained high even after digoxin therapy was discontinued. The
physician then discovered that the patient was taking a “Siberian
ginseng” product. After stopping use of the product, serum digoxin
levels returned to normal. Treatment with digoxin resumed. Several
months later, the patient started taking “Siberian ginseng” once
again, and serum digoxin levels rose. Use of “Siberian ginseng”
was stopped, and serum digoxin levels again returned to normal. The
abnormally high levels of digoxin were attributed to “Siberian
It appears this may have been another case of confusion between
Siberian ginseng (i.e., E.
may contain glycoside compounds to the cardiac glycosides in foxglove
Plantaginaceae). A laboratory analyzed the offending “Siberian
ginseng” capsules for digoxin and none was found. No further
analysis was conducted on the product, so the identity of the plant
material was never confirmed.41
It is highly probable that the “Siberian ginseng” product in
question was actually P.
Red American Ginseng—Fraud Exposed
a product appears on the market that defies definition as adulterated
and instead can be categorized as outright unscrupulous fraud. Such
is the case with the offering of products labeled “wild red
American ginseng” in the late 1970s. The product was indeed a
red-colored root, was collected from the wild, and, as advertised,
was a plant native to the Southwest United States (and adjacent
Northern Mexico). However, the plant—by any stretch of defining
plant materials—was not remotely related in any respect to (1) use
of the common name “ginseng;” (2) the genus Panax;
(3) the ginseng family; (4) ginseng’s chemistry; or (5) ginseng’s
expected adaptogenic or traditional effects.
plant was canaigre (Rumex
a member of the buckwheat family (Polygonaceae). Also known as
Arizona dock, tanner’s dock, or canaigre dock, this species is
found in sandy and rocky alkaline soils or along dry washes in the
Southwest, north to Colorado and south to Baja California and
Chihuahua, Mexico. 42
then-fledgling and now-defunct Herb Trade Association (predecessor of
the American Herbal Products Association) investigated the “wild
red American ginseng” issue, and found the offering to be
fraudulent. The results were published as the “Herb Trade
Association Policy Statement No. 1—Canaigre,” after which the
product slowly disappeared from the market.43,44
the late 19th century, canaigre gained notoriety as a potential
economic plant due to its very high tannin content. Mexicans and
American Indian groups utilized the plant as a tanning agent. In
1887, R. J. Kerr of Tucson, Arizona, became interested in the plant’s
commercial development as a tanning agent and shipped the first train
carload of the dried root to a Texas tannery. Academic interest
followed. In the early 1890s, the Texas Agricultural Experiment
Station at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (now
Texas A&M University) initiated cultivation studies. The
production trials produced dried roots with up to 31% tannic acid.
Eugene Dittman, a tannery owner in New Braunfels, Texas, suggested
that tanning could be done cheaper with canaigre in Texas than in any
other part of the country. Like other Texas tanners of the late 19th
century, he believed that the best quality leather is produced by
canaigre or its extract, and “is of the very best; a very fine,
mellow leather, with a very fine yellow color, of great durability;
pronounced by all leather consumers [in New Braunfels] as of extra
Adulteration Extends to Confusion in the Scientific Literature
the spring of 1985, HerbalGram
published a brief notice titled “Herb Traders Beware,” alerting
readers to the possibility that dried root marketed as “Echinacea
(Asteraceae) may instead be the root of wild quinine, prairie dock,
or Missouri snakeroot (Parthenium
Asteraceae). At the time, HerbalGram,
then in its second year, was a 12-page, black-and-white newsletter.46
Later that year, Rudolf Bauer, PhD, and colleagues at the University
of Munich, published on the discovery and elucidation of 4 new
cinnamoyl esters of sesquiterpene alcohols from E.
They named them echinadiol, epoxyechinadiol, echinaxanthol, and
However, in the late summer of 1986, Dr. Bauer confirmed that the
plant material used for the studies was in fact a widespread
adulterant to commercial E.
lots, a plant known botanically as P.
purpose in performing the 1985 chemical study on E.
to look at the chemistry of commercial E.
root products. An assumption was made that the plant material in the
marketplace was correctly labeled. That assumption proved erroneous.
About 20 different batches of commercial “Echinacea
roots were tested, which showed 4 characteristic patterns in chemical
assay. Isolation and elucidation of the chemical structure yielded 4
new compounds—new to P.
rather than E.
is not similar in appearance to Echinacea, once the root is dried,
cut, and sifted, it has an uncanny resemblance to E.
roots, although it possesses its own characteristic flavor and
fragrance. It does not resemble the root of E.
root may weigh up to 10 times more than one E.
was documented as an adulterant in commercial echinacea lots as early
renowned Eclectic pharmacist and author John Uri Lloyd noted that
echinacea was one of the most variable drugs known to him in its
crude form, and he found that insipid, tasteless lots of Echinacea
root had little medicinal value. Other adulterants in lots of the
dried root mentioned by Lloyd included Lespedeza
(round-headed bush clover, Fabaceae), Eryngium
(rattlesnake-master, Apiaceae), Rudbeckia
(St. John’s-Susan, Asteraceae), Helianthus
sunflower, Asteraceae), Liatris
(rough blazing star, Asteraceae), and unidentified plant roots.52
study showed that the work had in fact been done on P.
root products labeled as E.
raised the question about the identity of other Echinacea species
reported in the chemical, pharmacological, and clinical literature.
Bauer and colleagues in Germany, Austria, and elsewhere have since
developed clear HPLC (high-performance liquid chromatography) and TLC
(thin-layer chromatography) analytical methods for distinguishing
various species of Echinacea. In the process of the research, it
became clear that previous reports on the chemistry and pharmacology
had actually involved E.
Therefore, the identity of Echinacea
in published reports prior to 1987 must be questioned, in the absence
of a vouchered reference specimen of the source plant material in a
ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Program
cases and many others that are not mentioned herein highlight the
need for proper identification of plant materials in the botanical
market. Sophistication and adulteration of botanical drugs has
occurred throughout history. Quality assurance or quality control
begins with proper identification of the source plant material.
Agreed upon standards of identification, quality, and potency follow.
While there is ample evidence that responsible elements of the
herbal products and dietary supplements industry in the United States
already adhere to scrupulous quality control regimes and the
ever-increasing efforts in this area, the unfortunate situation
appears to be that there may be numerous cases of accidental and
intentional adulteration of herbal ingredients, including raw
materials, extracts, essential oils, fungal ingredients, and more.
leading independent, nonprofit organizations—the American Botanical
Council, the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, and the National Center
for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi—have
joined forces along with other parties to create the ABC-AHP-NCNPR
Botanical Adulterants Program, a long-term, multi-party coalition of
herb quality and identity experts in university research groups,
third-party analytical laboratories, government agencies, trade
associations, and industry companies to examine the extent of
suspected adulteration of herbal materials, particularly adulteration
that is economically motived. The intention is to confirm the extent
of adulteration in the United States and global markets, determine
which official or unofficial analytical methods are currently
available to help detect the presence (or absence) of a suspected or
known adulterant, and to provide comment and guidance on the relative
strengths and/or weaknesses of differing analytical methods. The
results of this investigation will be published in a series of
reports (white papers) and will be made available on the ABC website.
This present paper, or possibly an expanded version of it, detailing
the history of both the accidental and the economically motivated
adulteration of herbal raw materials and herbal drugs, is the first
in the proposed series of publications.
Foster, president of Steven Foster Group Inc., is an author,
photographer, and consultant specializing in medicinal and aromatic
feature article was peer reviewed by 5 noted experts in the history
of pharmacy and medicine and additional expert reviewers.
for the research, writing, editing, and peer review of this paper was
made possible by a series of unrestricted educational grants made to
the American Botanical Council for the ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical
Adulteration Program by a large group of underwriters. The author of
this paper has no financial relationship with any of these
underwriters. A complete list of underwriters to date is shown on
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