experts – Radio Free Asia

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The roots, dried fruits, leaves and berries used in traditional Chinese medicine preparations are increasingly contaminated with chemicals, including pesticides and preservatives, experts told RFA in a recent report. investigation.

Take the goji or goji berry (lycium barbarum), now popular as a supplement or wellness ingredient around the world. While listings on whole food websites outside of China now claim to offer “sulfite-free” dried berries, the majority of the stock from China is still preserved using sulfites.

“[Sulfur fumigation] is the cheapest form of preservative, “Chen Shih-hsiung, an organic farming expert from the Democratic Island of Taiwan, told RFA.” It acts as a preservative, a pesticide and improves color. “

“This is a very common process used by Chinese farmers, and it will be difficult to change that,” Chen said.

Taiwan-based food chemistry expert Wang Yuen-chun said the traditional method of preserving herbs and berries is to dry them in the sun, but the majority of TCM companies in mainland China are now using fumigation. sulfur, because drying in the sun is too labor intensive.

Brightly or light-colored grasses, such as sliced ​​white roots and berries, are more likely to have high levels of sulfur, Wang said, due to the color-enhancing effects of fumigation.

Current industry standards agreed between Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China limit sulfur dioxide residues in most TCM products to 150 ppm, with some limited to 400 ppm.

But recent testing of TCM drugs imported from China by the Taipei Municipal Health Bureau found that dried winter flowers, gentian and tricosanthes all had sulfur dioxide levels above safety standards.

Wang warned that herbs with a high sulfur content often have a pungent odor and a sour or bitter taste.

“If it has only been lightly treated with sulfur fumigation, you may not notice the smell or taste,” he said.

Chen said a low-tech environment and lack of education among herb growers in China was a major problem.

“A lot of farmers in China have virtually no education and are working with outdated technology,” he said. “It’s not that easy for them to switch to modern drying methods.”

Wang mentioned.

Too much sulfur can also neutralize the active ingredients in Chinese medicine by altering the structure of the original compounds, he said.

China is currently by far the world’s largest producer of TCM materials, accounting for 90 percent of the global market.

According to an article published in November 2021 on the Chinese Medicine Net website, more than 60% of medical raw materials, including codonopsis, angelica, forsythia, jujube, epimedium and astragalus root, do not have not passed quality control testing of pharmacopoeia products due to lack of medicinal value. or pesticide residues.

And yet, demand for TCM products is still strong, with an 80% increase in the number of applications to register new TCM products since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The shortage caused by the lack of newly registered suppliers has caused prices to skyrocket as manufacturers of untested, substandard, or counterfeit products rush to fill the void.

In testing over 1,000 batches of unregistered TCM herbal preparations in 2020, China’s National Food and Drug Administration found traces of banned pesticides including phorate, carbofuran, DDT, fipronil and BHT.

A profit-driven industry

The problem, according to Chen, lies in the profit-driven industrialization of TCM agriculture.

“Planting Traditional Chinese Medicine uses deeply rooted traditional methods, which state that there is no need for pesticides unless you can see insects, or fungicides when there is no disease, or ‘herbicides in the absence of grass,’ he said.

“Otherwise, it will lead to disaster in the future,” said Chen, who calls industrial use of pesticides “suicide agriculture.”

“It hurts everyone, from producers to consumers, and it will leave future generations without arable land; no one wins when you use suicide farming methods. “

Chen said that many TCM herbs have their own insect and disease resistance properties.

Dyes are another common substance found in TCM herbs, including Sudan red and other banned red dyes, according to Wang, who says goji berries and ginseng roots with uneven coloring are more likely to ‘have been sun-dried, while those with a deep, uniform color are more likely to have been dyed.

Among the toxic dyes found in TCM products, Acid Red 73, Carmine and Sudan Red are among the most concerning, Wang said.

British studies have shown that six food colors, including carmine, can affect children’s intelligence and cause behavioral disturbances, while also combining easily with heavy metals like arsenic, copper and lead during the process. Manufacturing.

Carmine dyes are currently banned in Taiwan, the United States, Canada, and Norway, while they can be used in strictly limited amounts in the EU and Japan, among other countries.

Meanwhile, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies the red dyes from Sudan as carcinogenic to humans or animals.

Chen is not optimistic about the future of TCM, despite growing his own herbal remedies at home.

Ultimately, enough people will worry about the toxic side effects to stop buying it. “Chinese medicine will destroy itself,” he said.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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