Carbon-14 Authentication of Supplement Ingredients

The growing number of health-conscious consumers parallels the increasing size of the natural health supplements market. Manufacturers and suppliers are thus inclined to move towards the formulation and distribution of natural vitamins and dietary supplements. In some cases, however, it is difficult to determine whether or not vitamins and supplements with labels of “natural” or “all-natural” ingredients actually include a portion of synthetic petrochemical-derived ingredients.

Supplement adulteration demonstrates the importance of effective quality control and quality assurance procedures and highlights the need for verification of supplement ingredients to authenticate natural-source claims. Carbon-14 analysis is an established method used to screen product ingredients, differentiating between biomass-based, such as plant, animal or microbiological sources, and petrochemical-based sources.

A thriving industry

Supplements and vitamins are used daily in many areas of the world with intentions of improving nutrient intakes and lifestyle habits. Vitamin supplements are available in both synthetic forms and natural plant-based compositions. Natural supplements, in particular, are often used as a preventive measure for lifestyle diseases however, approximately 95% of vitamins sold are derived from petrochemicals.1,2 While the use of supplements comprised of petroleum sources remain popular, there has been an increase in the use of supplements derived from botanical ingredients, such as turmeric.3

Worldwide, consumer preference for supplement ingredients derived from biomass material is demonstrated through the continuous growth of the natural health supplements market. In 2016, the global natural health supplements market was valued at approximately USD $36,803.52 million. This lucrative industry is forecasted to reach a global market size of USD $68,140.05 million by the end of 2024.1

Although the natural ingredient trend is expanding, there is still use of synthetic ingredients in vitamins, both explicitly and deceptively. The increasing consumption of dietary supplements coupled with the popularity of natural-sourced supplements creates a greater need for authentication of ingredients and accurate labels.

Supplement fraud

Mislabeling and adulteration of ingredients have been known issues within the supplements industry for years. In 2015, laboratory analyses discovered that ingredients stated on product labels were inconsistent with the actual supplement ingredients. Several supplements in the market either did not include the ingredients which were claimed on the labels or were contaminated with other filler ingredients. As a result of ingredient contamination, substitution and mislabeling, the New York Attorney General’s office ordered retailers such as Walmart, Target, Walgreens, and GNC to stop selling certain supplements.4

In addition, the supplement industry is vulnerable to economically motivated adulteration (EMA), where a less expensive, fraudulent ingredient is intentionally used in an effort to increase the apparent value of a product.5,6 For example, authentic natural ingredients are often substituted with petrochemical-derived synthetic materials which tend to have a less expensive cost of production.

With this concept in mind, there is potential for deliberate addition of synthetic petrochemical ingredients in “natural” supplements as manufacturers and distributors are compelled to keep up with the growing industry. Often, adulterated supplements are still labeled as “natural,” creating quality control concerns within the industry.

Curcumin & Vitamin E

Supplements and vitamins such as curcumin and Vitamin E, among several others, are commonly mislabeled or substituted with fraudulent ingredients. Curcumin, an ingredient in several supplements, has been used to assist in preventing cardiovascular disease and cancer in addition to its role as an anti-inflammatory. Curcumin in its natural form is both expensive and difficult to produce.7 As a consequence of this, curcumin is vulnerable to economically motivated adulteration due to the significantly lower cost of production of petrochemical derived synthetic curcumin.

Vitamin E, an antioxidant which acts to boost the immune system, is available in both natural (d-alpha-tocopherol) and synthetic (dl-alpha-tocopherol) forms.8 Studies have found that the natural-sourced form of Vitamin E is at least twice as effective than the petroleum-derived synthetic form based on physiological and pharmacological markers.2,9 Compared to the synthetic Vitamin E sector, the naturally derived Vitamin E sector is expected to grow faster.10 This creates a potential incentive for the mislabeling and adulteration of Vitamin E as manufacturers attempt to satisfy consumer demands.

Dietary supplements seem prone to adulteration through substituting plant-based ingredients with cheaper petroleum-based versions. The ability to detect the presence of synthetic adulterants is often a challenge, particularly when the synthetic version is identical in chemical structure to the natural version, as it is for curcumin. This calls for reliable analytical methods and standards prior to offering products in the marketplace.

Employment of carbon-14

As fraudulent use of cheaper, synthetic, fossil fuel-derived ingredients is a potential problem in the supplement industry, a reliable tool to detect counterfeit “natural” supplements is essential. This is where carbon-14 testing comes into play. The weakly radioactive isotope carbon-14 is present in all living organisms. However, once an organism dies, it stops exchanging carbon with the biosphere and the carbon-14 content begins to decay at a rate of 5730 years, the half-life of carbon-14. After approximately 43,500 years, there is no carbon-14 left in a material. Therefore, in contrast to living organisms, fossil fuel material does not contain any carbon-14, so the presence or absence of carbon-14 can confirm whether or not an ingredient comes from a natural biomass source.11

Carbon-14 testing, also referred to as biobased testing, has been used for over a decade by quality control and quality assurance departments to differentiate between biomass-derived and petroleum-sourced material. Standardized methods such as ASTMD6866 and ISO 16620-2 are used to determine the biobased content of solid, liquid or gaseous samples through carbon-14 analysis.12,13 Under these standards, an Accelerator Mass Spectrometer (AMS) is the preferred instrument used to count the number of carbon-14 atoms in a given sample. ASTM D6866 and ISO 16620-2 are both frequently employed by stakeholders within the supplement industry. Depending on the composition of material tested using carbon-14 analysis, test results will be reported as a percentage, ranging from 0% to 100% biobased: 0% indicating the absence of biomass sources, 100% demonstrating use of only plant-based material, and a percentage in-between representing a mix of both petrochemical-derived synthetics and biomass-based material.

Measuring the carbon-14 content of a curcumin sample derived wholly from petrochemical synthetic material, for example, would not detect any carbon-14.7 This would be reported as 0% biobased under ASTM D6866 or ISO 16620-2 standards.


Within the supplements industry, there is a great impetus for stakeholders to verify that ingredients claimed as being all-natural are wholly biomass-derived. Utilizing carbon-14 analysis as a tool to detect adulteration is therefore critical throughout the supply chain. By measuring samples under standardized methods, reliable results of biobased versus fossil-fuel derived content provides valuable insight, allowing for authentic and rightfully labeled supplements.

Haley Gershon,
Marketing Specialist, Beta Analytic


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