Common Counterfeits in Chinese Herbal Medicine
by Eric Brand
A few days ago, I posted a blog on medicinals that are commonly confused in the herbal marketplace. Many of these items could be considered “counterfeit” or adulterant medicinals, although most of the substitutions mentioned in the previous blog are not intentionally sold as the inauthentic item. Commonly-confused medicinals tend to be regional substitutes that are generally perceived to be the authentic medicinal. By contrast, true counterfeit products tend to be knowingly incorrect but are still sold as the legitimate product so as to fetch a higher price.
The scope of counterfeit medicinals is vast, and different markets have different counterfeits in prominence. Counterfeit animal products are the most commonly seen, though several herbal substances also have counterfeit forms. Counterfeit products are typically only seen for relatively expensive or rare items. This blog will mostly deal with counterfeit products on the raw herbal market, but it should be noted that many of the prepared medicines found in Chinatown pharmacies have counterfeit forms. For example, several brands of inexpensive tea pills copy or closely replicate the packaging of more reputable brands, and many tea pills that claim to have valuable or rare medicinal products are completely lacking in said ingredients.
On the professional herbal marketplace, counterfeiting is not a common problem among the major prepared medicines used by clinicians. Companies that produce GMP products are required to verify authenticity with organoleptic testing as well as TLC (thin layer chromatography) testing; these methods assure correct identification. For example, Blue Poppy’s manufacturing facility in China is staffed by pharmacists with decades of experience in herbal pharmacy and product identification, and these experts are supported by a full lab that ensures potency and authenticity of all the products produced.
On the raw herbal market, the key medicinals to be on the lookout for include the following:
Chen xiang of inadequate quality is extremely common on the marketplace. The official product is derived from domestically grown Chinese Aquilaria sinensis. Another type of aquilaria bark is imported from Southeast Asia, typically from Aquilaria agallocha. Technically, the former is the proper medicinal and the latter is a substitute medicinal, but traditionally they are ascribed the same properties and both types exist in both high and low quality.
The most common counterfeit product for chen xiang is aquilaria bark that lacks resin. This product is light, often lacquered, and lacks an oily, resinous appearance. The authentic product is very heavy and sometimes sinks in water (“chen xiang” means “sinking fragrance”). The true product is oily and very fragrant, while the counterfeit product is nearly completely lacking in taste and fragrance. On the US market, the authentic item is very hard to find in its crude form, and the counterfeit product dominates the market. The true product is very expensive and very distinctive with its heavy, oily texture and strong aroma.
Dong Chong Xia Cao
Dong chong xia cao exists in several forms. The true wild product is very expensive, often costing over $5000 per kilogram on the Chinese wholesale market. Recently, lab-cultivated cordyceps has been successfully grown on a commercial scale, allowing for the use of an inexpensive substitute. Both of these are authentic products, though they are different in their appearance and their growing conditions.
Most experts consider the cultivated product to be a new, unexplored medicinal and are hesitant to expect the same properties from it as they expect from the wild product. Nonetheless, the lab-grown product has a similar chemical profile and is likely a valuable addition to the materia medica, particularly in light of the prohibitive expense and the ecological pressure of harvesting the wild product.
Cultivated cordyceps comes in two forms: mycelium and fruiting body. It is a new product with a distinctive color and fragrance, and is not yet widely counterfeited. The wild product is commonly counterfeited, though authentic sources still abound. Counterfeit products are often crafted out of flour; they are smooth on the outside, break easily, and typically lack the brown stroma that emerges from the head of the infested caterpillar. The other problem commonly reported is that unscrupulous vendors occasionally add lead or other metal to the core of true cordyceps to increase its weight.
Counterfeit wild-ginseng is known as gong yi shen. Please see the following link to read about discerning counterfeit wild ginseng roots here on the Blue Poppy blog:
The other main counterfeit issue with ginseng relates to counterfeit Korean ginseng. This is typically Chinese red ginseng that is sold on the market as Korean ginseng to command a higher price. The most famous is a product sold out of Hong Kong, it has a yellow label that says Korean ginseng but it lacks the holograms and authentication trademarks of the real product, which is exported under the brand Zheng Guan Zhuang (“true regulated packaging”).
Other counterfeit tins of Korean ginseng can be found, and some of them look remarkably like the real product until the tin is opened. These cheap substitutes often have a slight smell of molasses, which is used to darken the color of the roots. In some instances, close inspection of the Chinese characters on the box will reveal that the ginseng is grown in China, but the English text exclusively says Korean ginseng and the text on the tin is written mostly in Korean to further create the image.
Chuan Bei Mu
Inexpensive substitutes for chuan bei mu are often sold as the authentic item. The true product is expensive, and has one small blade embraced within a larger blade, along with a flat, dented base. Ping bei mu, a related but less expensive product, has two relatively even blades and an uneven base. The two may be used interchangeably but true chuan bei mu is regarded as superior and is much more expensive. Good quality chuan bei mu should be white, pearl-shaped, and should be soft when crushed.
Bing pian is a natural exudate from a tree. The true product is called mei pian (lit. “plum flakes”), and is very expensive. Most bing pian on the market is synthetic borneol, which is regarded as a legitimate medicinal but is generally only used externally. Internal use of bing pian typically demands the natural product, while external applications typically use the cheap synthetic substitute. For application to the eyes, only the natural product can be used.
The natural product is slightly off-white or yellow, while the synthetic product consists of clear, clean, white crystals. The synthetic product produces dark smoke when burned, while the natural product produces little smoke when burned.
Many animal products are counterfeited. The most common ones are lu rong (velvet antler), she xiang (musk), niu huang (bezoar), and banned products such as hu gu (tiger bone), xiong dan (bear gallbladder), and hai gou shen (seal genitals). Of particular interest is niu huang, which has both natural and synthetic forms and requires true expertise to assess.