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Trusting ginseng products?

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I wouldn't.

Ginseng, be it American (Panax quinquefolius) or Asian (Panax ginseng), is one of the most expensive plants there are.

Chances are, somebody has substituted something else for it, somewhere in the production chain.

And if more than one part of the production chain does so, you get what's generally sold as "ginseng products" in health food stores.

Back in 1995 I attended a course in pharmacognosy at the U of Helsinki. Pharmacognosy is all about single constituents and their effects, and I dropped it after that introductory course - I'm not really interested in academic subjects (like how many "=" you'll find in which COOH), I like to do more practical things.

One of the teachers had been part of a researcher team that had looked into ginseng products available in Finnish pharmacies, about 10 years earlier. That's pharmacies, where production standards include guaranteed amounts of actives in each and every product on the shelves... and this was 20 years ago. Ginseng hasn't gotten any cheaper since then.

Now, of the 13 products then available they found that there was as much ginseng as was stated on the label in one (count'em, 1) of them, and 3 (or 4, I forget) others did at least contain ginseng. What was in all those pretty ginseng-free packages with "ginseng" printed all over them, then? If I remember things right they found that those products mainly contained caffeine and sugar, which give you an immediate pick-me-up -- but caffeine will hasten your total exhaustion, where ginseng would have made you rest. And if it's caffeine you're after I can recommend a good latte.

The research had been ordered by one of the producers of said 13 ginseng products. Unfortunately, while their product did contain ginseng, it wasn't the single shining example of commercial integrity. So they killed the paper. It's not as if you could base a marketing exercise on a result that says "see? contains ginseng!", when what you were after was "see? contains more ginseng than all the other products!".

The result is singularly unsurprising to anybody who is cynical about human nature. Me, for instance.

And the result tells you why you should buy whole root -- or whole leaf -- if you want ginseng. The root looks quite distinctive, and the leaf isn't expensive enough to adulterate.

Or go for any of the other adaptogens, there's lots. And while you'll usually find that one or the other of them is the current rather too expensive bandwagon that you're supposed to jump onto, don't. Go for the currently not-so-sexy ones instead. They're more affordable, and give the same zing as the sexy ones.

Related entry: Burnout