With celebrations of the Chinese New Year drawing to a close—New Year's Eve, this year, was celebrated on the 19th, and festivities will draw to a close on Thursday—Asian groceries across the country are busy restocking their shelves with a product that is one of the most popular holidays gifts in China: American-grown ginseng.
Panax ginseng is a root that is native to China, where it's known as renshen. For thousands of years, it's been a key ingredient in the country's arsenal of traditional medications, used in the treatment of conditions ranging from fatigue to cancer to erectile dysfunction. But even though ginseng—a low-growing, berry-producing plant—has thrived in Chinese forests for more than 5,000 years, Chinese consumers overwhelmingly prefer the roots of its American cousin, Panax quinquefolius.
According to an article in the LA Times, "few consumers are more faithful to American products than Chinese users of ginseng." Last year, the article says, the US exported $77.3 million worth of the root, most of it to Hong Kong. Chinese preference for American ginseng—a closely related variety that is indigenous to US forests and was long used in Native American medicine—is due to the plant's properties, which differ from those of its Asian relative. While traditional Chinese medicine ascribes a "hot," stimulating effect to Chinese ginseng, American ginseng is said to be "cool" and calming. It also has a stronger flavor and higher concentrations of ginsenosides, the active ingredients responsible for the root's supposed health benefits.
Close to 95 percent of American ginseng is grown in Wisconsin, and it can fetch a pretty penny: up to $9,000 per pound in some stores in cities with large Chinese populations, such as Monterey Park in California. In 2013, the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin signed a ten-year, $200-million deal with the historic Beijing medicine company Tong Ren Tang. American-grown ginseng can be so valuable that in 2012 a ginseng thief was arrested for repeatedly raiding Monterey Park herbal stores.
But as it turns out, there's a strong possibility that all that American ginseng that Chinese are paying so much money to import—and that Chinese tourists purchase and give away as a highly prized gift—might actually be Chinese ginseng that has been imported from China, re-labeled as American, and its price inflated accordingly.
Because such fraud is rampant in the industry, Chinese visitors to America are likely returning home with "Chinese-raised 'American ginseng,'" Tom Hack of Ginseng Board of Wisconsin told the LA Times. Last year, the US imported $31 million worth of ginseng, much of it from China, and those imports are more than likely what's inside those brisk-selling boxes of "American" ginseng. In 2013, Hack told the Times, Ginseng Board officials flew to Pomona, where the annual Asian American Expo was being held. When they inspected dozens of Wisconsin-branded ginseng products, the officials found that less than 12 percent of the products were actually from Wisconsin, Hack said.
When it comes to food and drink, it's increasingly true that things are rarely what they seem. Food fraud is rampant across all sectors of the industry; earlier this month international police agency Interpol announced that it had seized thousands of tons of fake food—from expired Italian cheese doctored with chemicals to make it appear fresh to antifreeze-laced vodka—from a whopping 47 countries.
Ginseng lovers, take note: if you're suffering from an excess of yang, you'd better head straight to Wisconsin to get your hands on the real-deal, American-grown, cooling stuff.