A Consumer’s Guide to Adulterated, Fake Herbs + How to Avoid Them

Published on November 08, 2023

By Kristen Boye BS, Natural Health

Kristen Boye

Kristen Boye is a natural health expert, writer, copywriter, and editor. Kristen was raised on an organic farm in British Columbia which inspired her life’s work. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Health, is a Certified Natural Foods Chef, co-owner of a medicinal herb farm, and is a natural foods and children’s health advocate. Kristen lives with her husband and two children on their medicinal herb farm in Western North Carolina.

Did you know some herbal supplements contain fake herbs?

The scientific name for this is “herbal adulteration”: the act of altering a specific herb without disclosure. 

This is a long-standing problem within the supplement industry and something Gaia Herbs takes very seriously.

Yet, little information is available to consumers about what “fake” or adulterated herbs are and how and why to avoid them in supplements.

In this article, we’ll share everything you need to know about adulterated herbs, how to avoid them in herbal supplements, and how Gaia Herbs ensures that no adulterated, fake, or contaminated ingredients find their way into our products.

An Overview Of Adulteration in The Food And Herbal Supplement Industries

According to the American Botanical Council, a leader in the prevention of herb adulteration, the term “adulteration” refers to:

“Omitting any valuable constituent, substituting another substance wholly or in part, concealing damage or inferiority, or adding any substance to increase weight or bulk, reduce quality or strength, or make a product appear better than it is. Most adulterants are benign but less expensive than some constituent of the food and with enough similarity to deceive.”

In other words, it’s fraud.

Some examples of adulteration in the food industry include:

  • Watering down milk or juice with water to increase profits
  • Trying to pass off cheaper fish, such as catfish, as more expensive fish, like grouper
  • Adding pebbles or sand to legumes or pulses to increase weight
  • Mixing conventional foods into organic foods or selling conventional foods labeled as organic foods
  • Cutting extra virgin olive oil with cheaper vegetable oils

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, food adulteration is still a problem.REF#3129

However, new anti-fraud technologies make it easier to track supply chains, authenticate products, and force growers, manufacturers, and producers to be more transparent.

Adulteration is also problematic in the herbal products industry, especially when sourcing raw materials.

Some Examples of Adulteration in the Herbal Products Industry Include:

  • Adding cheap Gardenia extracts to bulk up Saffron
  • Selling fake Ginseng or Eleuthero as authentic Ginseng
  • Adding cheaper Berberine-containing or yellow-pigmented herbs to Goldenseal
  • Adding unapproved drugs to supplements to enhance their effects
  • Adding animal fats or cheap vegetable oils to Saw Palmetto fruit extracts
  • Selling less expensive herbs as authentic Black Cohosh
  • Cutting Ashwagandha root powder with an undisclosed amount of stem or leaf
  • Cutting Rhodiola rosea with cheaper varieties, such as Rhodiola crenulata

Many of these adulterated products come from overseas. However, there have been adulteration reports of domestically US-grown herbs as well.

23 Herbs With a History of Adulteration

Per the American Botanical Council, the following herbs and herbal products have been the targets of adulteration:REF#3130

  1. Aloe
  2. Ashwagandha
  3. Arnica
  4. Black Cohosh
  5. Bilberry
  6. Boswellia
  7. Cranberry
  8. Eleuthero
  9. Lavender Essential oil
  10.  European Elderberry
  11. Ginkgo
  12. Goldenseal
  13. Grapeseed Extract
  14. Nigella Seed
  15. Olive Oil
  16. Oregano Oil
  17. Pomegranate
  18. Rhodiola
  19. Saffron
  20. Saw Palmetto
  21. Skullcap
  22. Tea Tree Oil
  23. Turmeric

Although adulteration has occurred throughout history,REF#3131 not all herbs have a history of adulteration. 

However, as demand for herbal supplements increases, so does the risk of adulteration. 

Fortunately, industry organizations and watchdogs, like the American Botanical Council, have partnered with universities to raise awareness and prevent illegal herbal adulteration.

There are also new regulations in place to prevent these problems, which we’ll discuss more coming up.

Why Do Herbal Suppliers and Supplement Companies Adulterate Herbs?

The primary motivation behind herbal adulteration is money.

For example, an unethical supplier can make much more money by cutting an expensive herb with a less expensive herb. This has been documented with Ginseng, Black Cohosh, and Saffron, for example.

Ethical suppliers won’t do this because they value their reputation, care about herbs, and know they would go out of business as soon as they were exposed.

However, the increasing demand for herbs has created a black market of unethical suppliers who want to make fast money and don’t care if they get caught.

Other reasons for adulteration could be a lack of access to certain herbs in short supply, such as Goldenseal or Ginseng, which take seven years to mature. 

While an ethical supplier would be transparent about their inability to fulfill an order, a less-than-ethical supplier may be tempted to supply adulterated herbs instead.

As previously mentioned, some supplement companies have even added unapproved drugs to their formulas (without disclosing them) to make them more effective, which would increase profits.

So, adulteration can occur within the raw material supply chain and the manufacturing of dietary supplements.

How to Avoid Adulterated Herbs in Supplements

The good news is it’s easy for consumers to avoid adulterated herbal supplements.

All you have to do is source supplements from companies that follow cGMP regulations as established and enforced by the FDA.

cGMP stands for Current Good Manufacturing Practices and applies to all companies formulating and manufacturing supplements and food products.

cGMP regulations require companies to have designated Quality Control and Quality Assurance departments dedicated to ensuring raw materials and the final products are authentic and safe, as well as strict manufacturing practices.

Per FDA regulations for GMPS of dietary supplements: “Quality means that the dietary supplement consistently meets the established specifications for identity, purity, strength, and composition, and limits on contaminants, and has been manufactured, packaged, labeled, and held under conditions to prevent adulteration under section 402(a)(1), (a)(2), (a)(3), and (a)(4) of the act.”

“These 5 categories, when addressed properly, guard against adulteration.”REF#3132

This involves a dedicated lab, a team of scientists and quality experts, third-party outsourcing in some cases, and many steps, including:

  • Identity testing to ensure herbal authenticity
  • Purity testing for various contaminants
  • Meticulous record keeping to document the herb’s source and the results of various tests

How do you know if a supplement company is truly cGMP compliant? 

Unfortunately, any company can claim they are following cGMP regulations or are “GMP certified” (which should be a red flag because there is no cGMP certification recognized by the FDA).

However, with so many new companies popping up on large e-commerce sites, you can’t take their word for it.

The best way to verify this is to investigate the company and its history. 

Some questions to ask or research are:

  • How long have they been in business, and what is their reputation?
  • When was the last time they were audited by the FDA (and what was the result)? 
  • Who is on their QA/QC team? 
  • Do they have an ISO-certified lab? 
  • Do they make the results of their raw material and product testing available to customers? 
  • Are they transparent about sourcing?

Bottom line, if you want to avoid being ripped off or harmed by adulterated herbs, only buy from companies who follow cGMP regulations and can prove it.

How Gaia Herbs is Exceeding Industry Standards for Herbal Authenticity, Purity, & Transparency

Gaia Herbs meticulously follows cGMP regulations in all aspects of our manufacturing practices.

This alone would be enough to prevent adulterated herbs from reaching our products.

But, we take it several steps further, including:

  • Growing many of our herbs on our 350-acre regenerative organic certified herb farm in Western North Carolina
  • Saving seed to ensure the authenticity of our crops 
  • Establishing long-term relationships with socially responsible growers who are the best at what they grow
  • Our in-house ISO-certified laboratory: This certification confirms we have proper testing methods and management systems in place to validate products for level of purity, integrity, and potency
  • Full traceability of raw materials for the consumer through our Meet Your Herbs Program. This platform provides: 
    • Full transparency and tests for the absence of microbes, yeast, mold, and other pathogens
    • The predetermined levels of specific biomarkers, such as curcumins in Turmeric
    • DNA-validated confirmation of genus and species
    • And the origin of the herbs in the exact bottle
    • Consumers can access this information by entering the ID number located on the back of their Gaia Herbs supplement on our Meet Your Herbs page
  • Maintaining active membership in organizations dedicated to the preservation and ethical sourcing of herbs, including:

For more information on our commitment to ethical sourcing and business practices, check out our 2023 Sustainability Report.

To Recap What You Need to Know About Adulterated Herbs

Although adulteration is common within the food and herbal supplement industries, consumers can protect themselves by buying from companies that follow cGMP standards (and can prove it).

These standards protect consumers by requiring testing for identity and purity, which weeds out any issues with adulteration.

You can take it a step further by inquiring about a supplement company’s sourcing guidelines and ethics, such as those discussed previously.

Finally, don’t let worries about adulteration stop you from reaping the benefits of herbal products. 

If the supplement company follows FDA regulations for cGMP identity and purity testing, you’re assured an authentic and potent product.

For more information about fake herbs and herbal adulteration, we recommend visiting the American Botanical Council to learn more about their Adulteration Prevention Program.


  • 1. , "Stopping knockoff knockwurst and phony fromage", Washington Post.
  • 2. , "Adulteration Bulletins", Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program, American Botanical Council, The American Herbal Pharmacopia, The University of Mississippi’s National Center for Natural Products Research..
  • 3. , "A Brief History of Adulteration of Herbs, Spices, and Botanical Drugs", HerbalGram, Issue 92..
  • 4. , "Definition of Quality according to FDA GMPS for Dietary Supplements", Code of Federal Regulations (, Definition of Quality Subpart A-111.3 .