Get Involved
About Us
Our Members

New Bulletins Explore Adulteration of Black Cohosh and Goldenseal


In June, the ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Program published new Botanical Adulterants Bulletins (BABs) on goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis, Ranunculaceae) and black cohosh (Actaea racemosa, Ranunculaceae). The publications are the fourth and fifth Bulletins, respectively, to be released by the Program.

The goal of the Bulletins is to provide accounts of ongoing issues related to botanical identity and adulteration, thus allowing quality control personnel and lab technicians in the herbal medicine, botanical ingredient, dietary supplement, cosmetic, and conventional food industries to be informed on adulteration problems that may be widespread and/or imply safety concerns. As with all publications in the Program, the Bulletins are freely accessible to American Botanical Council (ABC) members and registered users on the Program’s website.


Black Cohosh

The Black Cohosh Bulletin begins with information on the plant species, its cultivation, harvest, market size, known adulterants, frequency of adulteration, potential therapeutic and/or safety issues with the adulterating species, and analytical approaches to detect adulterants. Seven expert reviewers provided input on the Black Cohosh Bulletin.

Black cohosh has been a popular ingredient in North American herbal medicine for centuries. Today, it is primarily used to alleviate menopausal symptoms. According to data published by ABC in its annual Herb Market Report, black cohosh has been one of the top six best-selling botanical dietary supplements in the mainstream market over the past three years.

Black cohosh is a popular herb in the United States and other industrialized nations,” said Mark Blumenthal, ABC founder and executive director and director of the Botanical Adulterants Program. "Our publication of this new Bulletin will help responsible companies in the herb and dietary supplement industry to exercise appropriate diligence in quality control testing to ensure that they are selling authentic North American black cohosh.”

The new Black Cohosh Botanical Adulterants Bulletin complements a previous extensive article on this topic published in HerbalGram issue 98 in 2013 by noted author and photographer Steven Foster, titled “Exploring the Peripatetic Maze of Black Cohosh Adulteration: A Review of the Nomenclature, Distribution, Chemistry, Market Status, Analytical Methods, and Safety.” The same issue featured a photo of black cohosh on the cover.

The Program produced an extensive Black Cohosh Laboratory Guidance Document in December 2015 that summarized and evaluated 36 analytical methods for accurately determining the identity of black cohosh botanical raw materials or extracts.

The new Black Cohosh Bulletin incorporates information compiled in these previous publications but adds new updates and advances.

Stefan Gafner, PhD, ABC chief science officer and Botanical Adulterants Program technical director, who wrote the Black Cohosh Bulletin, commented: "Adulteration of black cohosh continues to be a problem. Since the publication of Foster’s HerbalGram review on black cohosh adulteration and the Laboratory Guidance Document last year, new studies have confirmed the illegal substitution of botanical material labeled as ‘black cohosh’ with closely related Asian plants; however, these Asian species are different from authentic North American black cohosh. The goal of this new Bulletin is to further increase awareness of black cohosh adulteration.”

The Black Cohosh Bulletin is the fifth publication in a new series of Botanical Adulterants Bulletins, which provide timely information and updates on adulteration issues to the international herb and natural products communities. The Bulletin on goldenseal root and rhizome was published in early June, preceded in April by the first three Bulletins: bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus, Ericaceae) fruit extract, grape (Vitis vinifera, Vitaceae) seed extract, and skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora, Lamiaceae) herb. The Botanical Adulterants Program plans to release additional Bulletins in the coming months. The next in the series is a Bulletin on arnica (Arnica montana, Asteraceae) flower.



The Goldenseal Bulletin was written by Michael Tims, PhD, academic director of herbal medicine at the Maryland University of Integrative Health. It begins with general information on the plant species, followed by data on its cultivation, harvest, and market size. The main section covers known adulterants, frequency of adulteration, potential therapeutic and/or safety issues with the adulterating species, and analytical approaches to detect the adulterant. In keeping with the Program’s tradition of extensive peer-review of its publications, a total of 14 expert reviewers provided input on the Goldenseal Bulletin.

Goldenseal is native to North America and grows in much of the eastern half of the United States and Canada. Historically, Native Americans used preparations of goldenseal root and rhizome for a variety of conditions, including respiratory ailments, skin disorders, and infectious diseases. Goldenseal preparations still are used externally for their wound-healing and antimicrobial properties, but, more commonly, the herb is offered in combination herbal supplements — often with echinacea (Echinacea spp., Asteraceae) — for internal use that are marketed for immune support and other functions. In 2015, goldenseal-echinacea combination products were the 16th top-selling herbal supplement in US natural retail outlets.

“Goldenseal is one of the most consistently popular herbs sold in North America,” said Blumenthal. “Most goldenseal is wild-harvested and is considered a relatively high-priced medicinal plant, thereby lending itself to potential adulteration with undeclared lower-cost plant material by unscrupulous sellers.”

Gafner commented: “One of the characteristics of goldenseal root is its yellow color, which is mainly due to the presence of the alkaloid berberine. The abundance of other plant species, such as barberry (Berberis spp., Berberidaceae) or goldthread (Coptis spp., Ranunculaceae), containing this alkaloid has made it possible for unethical suppliers to find materials that can be passed on as goldenseal, even if the adulterating species are readily detected by commonly used chemical authentication methods.”

Tims added: “Goldenseal has been a historically important herb in the materia medica of American herbalism. The cyclically high price of the commercial root over time has been an incentive for economic adulteration. The difference now is the knowledge and methodologies shared in the Goldenseal Botanical Adulterants Bulletin, which makes prevention of such adulteration much easier.”

—ABC Staff