BAPP elderberry bulletin shows pace of adulteration may be abating

During the height of the elderberry immune health craze, some products entered the market that contained no elderberry at all, according to the latest news from a watchdog group. But the situation is improving as many bit players abandon the market.

June 23, 2023

3 Min Read
BAPP elderberry bulletin shows pace of adulteration may be abating

The news comes in the form of a bulletin from the Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP). The program is managed by the American Botanical Council (ABC) in conjunction with the American Herbal Pharmacopeia (AHP) and the National Center for Natural Products Research (NCNPR) at the University of Mississippi.

The new bulletin about elderberry adulteration contains the latest information on this very popular botanical, also referred to in commerce as European black elder or European elder berry.

Pandemic blew lid off botanical

Preparations based on elderberry are commonly used to treat symptoms of upper respiratory infections associated with colds and flus. Several clinical studies support its benefits in the treatment of symptoms of the common cold.

Elderberry sales were trending up before the advent of the global pandemic, then Covid-19 sent them into the stratosphere.

According to ABC’s annual Herb Market Report, elderberry sales rose from $51 million in the mass retail channel in 2018 to $107.6 million in 2019 and finally topped out at more than $274 million in 2021, which has proven to be the high-water mark.

Sales of elderberry products in the natural channel described a similar hockey-stick-like graph, except they started to cool faster. In 2021, $31.2 million of elderberry products were sold in that channel, representing a more than 31% drop from the year before.

Related:Formulating with Elderberry: Everything you need to know about sourcing, science and success

A huge increase in demand for a botanical whose supply can’t be expanded very easily or quickly always raises a red flag for potential adulteration, said Stefan Gafner, Ph.D., director of BAPP and the chief science officer of ABC.

At least one analytical chemist told Gafner at the peak of elderberry’s popularity he had discovered products that had none of the botanical in them and contained only food dyes to try to approximate the correct deep purple shade of a true extract, Gafner recalled.

The adulteration of elderberry preparations typically involves the undisclosed inclusion of black rice (Oryza sativa) extracts, although substitution with other anthocyanin-rich plant extracts or blue or purple food colorants has also been reported. Depending on the information source, genuine elderberry extract costs up to 30 times more than black rice extract, providing financial motivation for such fraud.

As sales slow, so too does adulteration

Gafner said in some cases brand holders who were trying to cash in on the elderberry craze may have been misled by unscrupulous suppliers. But the situation is improving, as companies in the habit of pouncing on trends move on to the next hot supplement ingredient.

“The relatively widespread occurrence of elderberry extract adulteration with extracts of black rice documented in the new bulletin is disturbing. However, recent discussions with responsible members of the herb and dietary supplement industry suggest that the elderberry market has been stabilizing,” Gafner said in a statement announcing the release of the new bulletin.

“Some of the new brands that entered the market at the height of the elderberry demand cycle, and which may have — unbeknownst to them — been selling adulterated products, appear to have exited from the market.”

The new bulletin can be accessed in full on the BAPP website.


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