Quality Manager’s checklist to select the right ginseng
Korean ginseng, or Panax ginseng, is one of the most prized herbal medicine in the world. However, identifying a quality supply can be tricky. An exercise even more complex as the plant is poorly understood in Europe. This article lists the key criteria that a Quality manager must consider assessing the potential supplies identified by the Sourcing manager (to find out more about the sourcing manager’s checklist, read HERE).
1. THE QUALITY CRITERIA OF GINSENG
1.1. Quality & Safety
When the Quality department is evaluating a ginseng, 3 major risks are essential in terms of safety:
Given its high price, ginseng is the target of many forms of adulteration. These range from the coarsest approach (adding sand to increase the weight) to the most subtle approach (adding the aerial parts of ginseng to the root). Either way, it is always best to verify the identity of the plant. The ideal is to have a supplier able to provide you with a certificate of DNA analysis. Particular attention must be paid to suppliers who highlight a high level of saponins and not a level of ginsenosides. It is not uncommon for unscrupulous suppliers to add another source of plant saponins to increase the content of the product. Remember that the total content of saponin is of little interest anyway.
- Contamination with pesticides
As mentioned in the previous article, ginseng is a valuable crop that needs to grow for many years before harvest. These two elements lead to a significant desire to "preserve" crops with large amounts of pesticides. Therefore, it is strongly recommended to do a pesticide analysis before selecting a ginseng supplier, including when the latter is certified ORGANIC (we are sometimes surprised at what we find there)!
- Heavy metal contamination
Heavy metal contamination is common for ginseng. Is it due to the environment used for the crops or to the root's ability to capture these contaminants during the 6 years it is grown? Hard to say. What is certain is that heavy metals cannot be ignored when assessing a new source of supply. The nature of the contaminants is variable (even arsenic in some instances), but aluminum is often a good indicator which makes it possible to estimate how much ginseng is at risk, because it is often the most abundant.
1.2. Quality & Efficiency
The active molecules involved in the effectiveness of ginseng are particularly numerous: specific oligopeptides, gintonin, phenolic compounds, etc. It is obviously not possible to carry out an exhaustive control during routine tests, without seeing its "budget testing" melt like snow in the sun. So, we will focus on 2 main categories of active ingredients from ginseng: ginsenosides and ginsan.
- Ginsenosides are specific saponins of which there is great diversity in Panax ginseng. They are considered the main active components. Therefore, it is common to have their rate indicated in the specifications. The first thing to check is that the analyzes are indeed quantitative assessments of the ginsenosides rate and not of the saponins rate (which have no interest when it comes to efficacy). Also, you must know that not all ginsenosides are equal in terms of activity. The so-called "classic" ginsenosides (Rb1, Rg1, etc.) can be considered as precursors of more bioavailable and thus more bioactive forms. However, they are only partially converted, which makes them much less attractive. Conversely, the so-called "rare" or "bioactive" ginsenosides are more bioavailable forms (Rg3, Rg5, Rk1, CK, Rh2, Rh4, etc.) because various processes have already converted them. Below is a personal method to assess a reasonable dose of ginsenosides, the difference in bioavailability considered. This calculation can also help to compare the price of 2 ginseng products with an equivalent amount of active substances.
- Acidic polysaccharides, also called ginsan, are specific molecules of ginseng and more particularly present in its root (but also in its fruits). If these do not seem to play a crucial role in nootropic (cognitive stimulation) or ergotropic (physical performance) activity, they do play a significant role in the immune sphere, with an impact on the intestinal microbiota. Fortunately, these polysaccharides are present in almost all ginseng with an increased presence in red and black ginseng. They are, on the other hand, almost absent from alcoholic extracts because they are very little soluble in alcohol. Preferring an extract enriched in ginsenosides for ease can have significant consequences on the effectiveness of the immune sphere in the broad sense.
1.3. Personal formula to estimate ginsenosides dose
There is currently no calculation allowing to precisely determine the optimal dose of ginsenosides for the desired effectiveness. One of the obstacles is that conventional ginsenosides (Rg1, Rb1, etc.) must be partially converted into more bioavailable forms before revealing their full potential. However, the conversion rate varies from one ginsenoside to another, but especially from one microbiota to another. To make up for this lack, here is a simplified formula developed based on my professional experience, which allows an approximate evaluation of an adapted dose:
(classic ginsenosides/6) + rare ginsenosides = "bioactive" ginsenosides
- For a "Well-being" product, aim for 5 to 10 mg of "bioactive" ginsenosides
- For a "Health" product, aim for 10 to 20 mg of "bioactive" ginsenosides
- For an "Intense" product, target 20 to 40 mg of "bioactive" ginsenosides
- For a "Clinical" product, target 40 to 80 mg of "bioactive" ginsenosides
That will be up to the Product Manager to decide what to offer pharmacists: a product full of poor quality ginseng ("when there is more it is always better") or a product with a more reasonable dose of ginseng, but truly bioactive and demonstrating of the laboratory's expertise. This decision obviously does not belong to the Quality Manager, but it is essential to clarify to your colleague that the premise "ginseng is ginseng" is not correct.
2. WHICH GINSENG FOR WHICH PRODUCT
Based on the information set out above, an ideal ginseng is free from pesticide or heavy metal contamination, contains a high level of rare ginsenosides (Rg3, Rg5, Rk1, CK, Rh2, Rh4, ... ) and did not lose their ginsan during the extraction process. The evaluation of the molecular profile can even be refined according to the type of product:
- Cognitive Health
For a product intended for cognitive health or for a nootropic effect, the level of Rg3 will be the priority, followed by the level of Rg5. If the product considers the "brain-intestine" dimension, ginsan represent an additional element of great interest. However, they are not essential to the effectiveness of a nootropic product.
- Immune Health
For a product intended for immune health, the presence of ginsan is a particularly important point, which seems almost as crucial as the bioavailable ginsenosides rate. Regarding these ginsenosides, Rg3 will be the reference ginsenoside. It is not impossible that the dehydrated forms of Rg3, such as Rg5 and Rk1, are just as useful, but the data do not yet allow us to confirm this with certainty.
- Metabolic Health
For a product intended for metabolic health, blood sugar, or lipid metabolism, we will focus on ginsenosides such as Rg5 and Rk1. Rg3 and CK are also of great interest. If the microbiotic balance is also desired, the ginsan will represent an additional element to consider. In this case it is best to avoid extracts and choose a powdered root.
In case the product is aimed at more therapeutic applications and to investigate the potential of ginseng on various forms of cancer, focus on Rh2, Rh4 and Rg3 because the related data are particularly numerous. Ginsan appear secondary in this context, at least in the light of current scientific data.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
- Organic certification is not sufficient to ensure the absence of contaminants.
- The level of saponins does not guarantee the quality of the product.
- The concentration of total ginsenosides is insufficient to assess efficacy.
- The ginsenoside profile and the rare ginsenosides rate are good indicators of the product's quality.
- Prefer a powdered root to an ethanolic extract when the ingredient is intended for immune health.
- When you compare the quality/price ratio of 2 "clean" ginseng, base it on the rate of bioactive ginsenosides. The price per kg of ginseng and the price per mg of total ginsenosides often turn out to be misleading.