Sourcing Manager’s checklist to select the right ginseng
Immunity, cognitive health, and metabolic balance are significant concerns of our modern society. Ginseng is among the most active medicinal plants in these fields and also among the most coveted. Obtaining quality ginseng is a delicate art because most ginseng on the market appear to be of poor quality despite a very wide offer.
Unfortunately, in Europe, ginseng mainly plays a marketing role. While it could be the core of efficacy. In Asian countries, where the therapeutic use of ginseng is more familiar, they have obtained greater expertise in guaranteeing what makes ginseng of superior quality.
In this context, this article intends to help "Sourcing Managers" to understand this ingredient better and to master the key aspects allowing them to find the ginseng that will best suit their project.
Although the "cost of goods" dimension is to be considered (quality ginseng is an expensive ingredient), the health benefit is the priority: 100 mg of an effective ginseng is better than 1 g of a low-quality ginseng.
1. DIFFERENT SPECIES OF GINSENG
Initially, the term ‘ginseng’ refers to the species Panax ginseng. However, the name can now apply to a whole series of very different plants. Here is a non-exhaustive list:
- Panax quinquefolium: American Ginseng
- Panax notoginseng: Ginseng from China
- Panax vietnamensis: Ginseng from Vietnam
- Panax pseudoginseng: Ginseng from Nepal
- Eleutherococcus senticosus: Siberian ginseng
- Withania somnifera: Indian Ginseng
- Codonopsis pilosula: Ginseng of the poor
- Hebanthe eriantha: Ginseng from Brazil
If several of these species actually contain active substances, we will confine ourselves here to real ginseng (Panax ginseng), also called Korean Ginseng. This ginseng is the object of most scientific studies due to its health benefits. If the combination of several species can sometimes represent an interest in a specific therapeutic issue, most of the time, it is not achieved to limit the costs (Panax ginseng being the most expensive).
2. DIFFERENT CROPS
Up until recently, ginseng was harvested directly in the forests of Manchuria by herbalists versed in the art of selecting the best specimens. Now, the explosion of the demand from the industry turned it into an intensive agriculture. All too often, the cultivation area is obtained by destroying forest ecosystems to benefit from an adapted rich “forest land” without trees that would hamper mechanization. Since ginseng is a shade-loving plant, crops have to be protected from the sun by an artificial shade system. There are also approaches to forest cultivation more respectful of the biotope.
However, ginseng harvested in the wild remains the most popular. As a matter of fact, the molecular composition of ginseng depends on the environment in which it grows and on the number of years during which it faces the "challenges" of its environment. It is, therefore, more common to obtain an interesting molecular profile in an "old" wild ginseng than in a "young" ginseng grown in the field. That said, there is poor quality wild ginseng on the market as well as farmed ginseng of acceptable quality. The molecular profile makes it possible to decide.
Note that the ginsenoside profile is also different depending on the type of roots: fleshy heart, rootlets, etc. Contrary to popular beliefs, analysis shows that rootlets do not contain less ginsenosides. Once again, only the molecular profile of the final product allows us to decide.
Finally, on a field of ginseng with high financial value, the farmer will tend to "preserve it from pests" with heavy blows of pesticides. Furthermore, it takes many years to obtain ginseng with an interesting molecular profile. The same plant is therefore exposed each year to this cocktail of pesticides. Note that ORGANIC ginseng can also be contaminated, although to a lesser extent. Heavy metal contamination should also be taken seriously as it is quite common for ginseng.
3. DIFFERENT PROCESSES
The main active molecules in ginseng are specific saponins called ginsenosides. It is thus not uncommon to see the ginsenoside concentration of a ginseng package highlighted in order to assert its quality.
Among these so-called classic ginsenosides, Rb1 and Rg1 are probably the most studied ginsenosides up to date. They are the reference molecules for European pharmacopoeias.
However, they have recently been identified as precursors of more bioactive forms. In fact, “classic” ginsenosides such as Rb1 or Rg1 are characterized by very low bioavailability, meaning they are very little absorbed by the body. However, they are partially converted to other ginsenosides by stomach acid and the gut microbiota. Thus, Rb1 can be partially converted into Rd, which can itself be converted either into F2 or Rg3. The latter being considered as a particularly active form.
Classic ginsenosides are therefore precursors of "bioactive" ginsenosides, which explains the benefits despite very low bioavailability. It has also been shown that certain methods for preparing ginseng promote the relative abundance of bioactive ginsenosides.
The fresh ginseng root is traditionally dried to obtain what is called "white ginseng". This can then be steamed to become "red ginseng". The latter is considered more effective due to the modification of its molecular composition (see below) which is richer in bioavailable ginsenosides. You can also cook it nine times (black ginseng), ferment it, extract some active molecules, etc.
Whatever the type of preparation, the main criterion for its quality is thus the level of bioactive ginsenosides, also called rare ginsenosides, and not the rate of total ginsenosides. The total concentration of ginsenosides, although partially indicative of the quality of the product, cannot guarantee its effectiveness.
Here we review the main categories of preparations and the impact on the molecular profile:
- White ginseng
This is a dried ginseng. It is characterized by the presence of ginsenosides in variable quantities depending on the culture conditions and the age of the plant. A high-quality white ginseng is considered to contain a minimum of 4% ginsenosides. Even if it contains a high level of ginsenosides, only a fraction of these will be converted into bioactive forms, and it will, therefore, be necessary to introduce it in large quantities to hope for a health benefit.
- Red Ginseng
This is a dried and steamed ginseng. It is characterized by the presence of ginsenosides in variable quantities with a higher proportion of bioactive ginsenosides and with a little more Rg3 in particular. It also seems to contain a higher amount of ginsan (acidic polysaccharides), which represents an additional interest for Immunity or Microbiotic products.
- Black Ginseng
This a dried ginseng that has been cooked 9 times. It is characterized by the presence of ginsenosides in variable quantity with a more abundant proportion of bioactive ginsenosides and Rg3, Rg5 and Rk1 in particular. It also contains a larger amount of ginsan (acidic polysaccharides).
- Fermented ginseng
As its name suggests, it is a ginseng which has undergone a fermentation stage. The goal is to convert a significant proportion of "precursor" ginsenosides (Rb1, Rg1, etc.) into bioactive ginsenosides (Rg3, Rh2, etc.), in the same way as cooking. Depending on the degree of optimization of the process, the level of bioactive ginsenosides can be more or less important. The ginsan could however be partially degraded.
- Extracts rich in ginsenosides
is an extract made using a solvent such as ethanol to ensure a higher concentration of ginsenosides. Indeed, the amount of ginsenosides in a ginseng root depends on a large number of factors. The ratio of active molecules such as ginsenosides partially overcomes quality problems by offering a product rich in active ingredients and standardized in its composition. However, by using this extraction method, we lose the polysaccharide fraction rich in ginsan and the benefits associated with it. This is important in the context of immunity and intestinal microbiota.
This a ginseng grown in Europe through vertical agriculture in a controlled environment. The selection of a particular cultivar and total control of the growing conditions leads to a root extremely rich in active ingredients and entirely free of contaminants. Right after cultivation and harvest, the roots are then cooked to obtain a unique concentration of bioactive ginsenosides. This ginseng also contains a significant amount of ginsan since it is not an extract but a powdered root.
3. SOURCING MANAGER'S CHECKLIST
Here are the 4 main steps to take into consideration when evaluating a ginseng by a Sourcing Manager (the next article in the series will be addressed to the Quality Manager):
1. Ensure the identity of the plant and the exclusive presence of roots.
- Make sure that the specification sheet and the certificate of analysis refer exclusively to the Panax ginseng species.
- Make sure that the specification sheet and the certificate of analysis refer to the plant organ used and that it is exclusively the root and/or rootlets.
- Request a certificate of genetic analysis to ensure that the product contains only Panax ginseng.
2. Investigate the methodology for growing the plant.
- Whether conventional or organic farming, ask for a pesticide analysis result and make sure that the absence of pesticides is mentioned on the specification sheet.
- If the plants are from wild harvest, identify the country of origin and make sure that the harvester has the necessary authorizations for this harvest. A sustainable approach is also a point to consider avoiding exhaustion of the ecosystem.
- In all cases, request a heavy metal analysis result to ensure that the product is not contaminated. The latter will be essential for your Quality Manager.
3. Investigate the type of preparation/process.
- If the ingredient is intended for an "immunity" or overall health product, prefer a complete root to an ethanolic extract in order to benefit from both ginsenosides and ginsan because the latter are very slightly soluble in ethanol.
- In case the ingredient is an extract rich in ginsenosides, ask for details on the solvents used to avoid an extract containing traces of solvents, being "problematic" in terms of food safety.
- If the ingredient is black ginseng (cooked 9 times), ask for a certificate of PAH analysis and that the maximum rate is indicated in the specification sheet to ensure that the ginseng has not been overcooked.
4. Request the molecular profile of ginsenosides so that the Quality Department can carry out a complete evaluation (see article next article).
- Request a full certificate of analysis showing the identity and the level of ginsenosides present in the final product. It is essential to highlight that the level of saponins is irrelevant since it is very often adulterated using saponins from other plants. In addition, the level of total ginsenosides is insufficient because it does not identify the amount of bioactive ginsenosides.
- Make sure that the individual levels of Rg3, Rg5, Rk1, Rh2, Rh4 and CK are present on the analysis provided. This analysis will be the cornerstone for assessing the potential effectiveness of the product.