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Product Review:
Asian & American Ginseng

Background:  Ginseng is widely used in the U.S. as a dietary supplement by consumers seeking to improve general energy and vitality, particularly during times of fatigue or stress. The most commonly used type of ginseng is Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng C.A., Meyer), often sold as Panax, Chinese, or Korean ginseng. Closely related to Asian ginseng is American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius L.), which is sometimes preferred for its milder effects. Siberian ginseng, also called eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus Rupr ex Maxim), is not as closely related to the other two, is often considered somewhat weaker in action, and is a less expensive ingredient.
Other reported uses of ginseng include normalizing blood sugars, such as in diabetes, stimulating immune function, and treating male impotence. Biologically, ginseng has been shown to allow cells to more readily use stored sugar, enabling red blood cells to carry more oxygen. However, the clinical evidence for ginseng's effectiveness has been mixed.
Ginseng-containing dietary supplements are typically made from a powder or extract of ginseng root. Plant chemicals called ginsenosides are believed to play a role in ginseng's activity. They are considered "marker" compounds for ginseng, i.e., their presence (or absence) and their profiles can indicate the type and quality of ginseng present in a product.
Safety concerns have been raised over potential pesticide and heavy metal contamination in some botanical products. For example, the pesticide pentachloronitrobenzene (known as quintozene or PCNB), a possible carcinogen that may also be toxic to the liver and kidney and impair oxygen transport in the blood, has been reported in samples of ginseng. However, neither the FDA nor any other federal or state agency routinely tests ginseng products, or other supplements, for quality prior to sale.
ConsumerLab.com, as part of its mission to independently evaluate products that affect health, wellness, and nutrition, purchased many of the leading Asian and American ginseng dietary supplements sold in the U.S. and tested them for identity, quality and purity.

Testing & Results:  In April and May 2000, ConsumerLab.com purchased a total of 22 brands of Asian and American ginseng products to determine whether they possessed 100% of the claimed amounts and types of ginseng. If the type or amount of ginseng was not clearly labeled, products were held to specific minimum standards selected by ConsumerLab.com. 
Products were also required to meet purity requirements for heavy metals (lead, arsenic, and cadmium) and the pesticides hexachlorobenzene, quintozene, and lindane.  Hexachlorobenzene is a probable human carcinogen and has been banned from most food crop use throughout the world. Quintozene and lindane are potential carcinogens that may also be toxic to various organs and are generally not allowed for use on food products in the U.S.
Seventeen of these products were Asian (labeled as Panax ginseng, Asian ginseng, Chinese ginseng, or Korean ginseng), four were American ginseng, and one was a mixture of Asian, American, and Siberian ginseng. One of the American ginseng products made of root powder was immediately eliminated from further testing as it was it was labeled to contain only 0.589% ginsenosides, which is below the 2.0% minimum for American ginseng root powder required to pass ConsumerLab.com testing. The remaining twenty-one products were tested.
Only nine products tested met all of ConsumerLab.com's criteria for ginseng quality and purity. Each of these nine passing products was also found to meet the State of California's stringent standard for lead levels.
Among the twenty-one products tested,
twelve did not pass testing
as they did not pass one or more criteria.

Eight products contained unacceptable levels of both quintozene and hexachlorobenzene. Two of these products had levels of these pesticides more than twenty times the allowed amount. None of the products tested surpassed the limit for the pesticide lindane.

Two products contained lead above the acceptable level (3 micrograms per daily serving). None of the products tested, however, were found to contain significant levels of arsenic or cadmium.

Seven products had less than the required concentration of ginsenosides.

In summary, out of the twenty-two products evaluated (including the one product dropped from testing as described above), 9 products passed all three general criteria (i.e., ginsensosides, pesticides, and heavy metals) while 5 failed two criteria and 8 failed a single criterion.
Interestingly, all eight of the products that contained lead or pesticides were labeled as containing "Korean" ginseng. In fact, only 2 of the 12 products containing Korean ginseng passed. Among the eight Korean ginseng products contaminated with pesticides three also had low ginsenoside levels and two others had high lead levels. Two Korean ginseng-containing products failed solely on low ginsenoside levels.

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