healthHealth and Medicine

Just 22 Percent Of Common Traditional Chinese Medicine Found To Include Ingredients Listed


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

Honeysuckle is a common ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. Ian Grainger/Shutterstock

Regardless of what kind of substance you are imbibing – whether it’s food, medicine, drugs, or drink – if you’re buying it from an outlet, you’d expect there to be ingredients on the bottle. It goes without saying that you’d expect those listed ingredients to be accurate.

A new study in Scientific Reports has highlighted that, when it comes to traditional Chinese medicine, the ingredients listed are often erroneous or false.


Specifically, medicines which claimed they contained honeysuckle (Lonicera) – a very fragrant flowering garden plants, and one used in a huge range of Chinese remedies for at least 3,000 years – were only truthful 22 percent of the time in a study of 47 known-brand samples. In some cases, what was said to be honeysuckle was a substitute or an adulterant, one that wasn’t listed on the bottle.

The team, led by the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College in Beijing, developed a brand-new, hyper-accurate genetic “barcode” that is able to quickly identify the various botanical extracts contained in various Chinese medicines. Concerned about drug safety and honesty, their study sadly confirmed their fears that plenty of medical suppliers in this sense are seemingly lying to people.

Traditional Chinese medicine has a controversial reputation. Much of it can be harmless, but this isn’t always the case. It isn’t often put through stringent scientific testing, and it certainly isn’t regulated in the way modern medicine is. In short, people should be wary of it until the facts emerge – and these are often obfuscated behind enthusiastic proponents of the practice.

Either way, the fact that nearly four-fifths of common Chinese medicine in this sense is not what it claims to be is deeply troubling. It’s fraud if there’s intent behind the mislabeling.

Imagine if just one in five of these jars contained what they claimed. Elena Elisseeva/Shutterstock

The team explain that adulterants or substitutes are used because they’re cheaper and easier to obtain – and this practice is incredibly widespread.

“Adulteration and counterfeiting of medicinal plant products is a global problem, especially in developing areas such as Africa, Latin America, and Asia,” they write in their study.

“The WHO (World Health Organization) estimated that as many as 30 percent of medicines sold in some Asian areas are adulterated, and the occurrence of incorrect species as medicinal herb substitutes in Brazilian markets may be as high as 71 percent.”

China is one of the world’s best places for biomedical research; it’s set to usurp America in this regard by the end of the decade. For decades, traditional Chinese medicine wasn’t really assessed in this way, but this new study is part of a drive to change that – and few would disagree with any mission to uncover counterfeiting at this scale.


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