Lab tests conducted on products sold at Wal-Mart, Target, and CVS showed no evidence of the plant
Laboratory testing on aloe vera gel sold at several well-known retailers has revealed that the products contain no evidence of aloe vera at all.
The gel is popular for soothing damaged skin, such as sunburns.
"You have to be very careful when you select and use aloe products"
Scientists conducting the tests at a lab hired by Bloomberg News took samples of store-brand aloe vera gel bought at national retail chains Wal-Mart, Target, and CVS. They performed several tests on the samples, and the results showed no indication of the presence of the plant. Each product tested listed leaf juice from aloe barbadensis—another name for aloe vera—as either the first ingredient or the second after water.
There is no regulator or overseer to ensure that aloe products actually include aloe as an ingredient. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve cosmetics before they are sold and has never issued any fine for the sale of fraudulent aloe. This means that suppliers are essentially using an honor system when they claim that their products contain certain ingredients.
Market researcher SPINS claims that the total market for aloe products in the U.S. —including drinks and vitamins—has grown to $146 million over the past year, an increase of 11 percent.
Tod Cooperman is the president of ConsumerLab.com, which has conducted aloe testing in the past. "You have to be very careful when you select and use aloe products," he said.
There are three chemical markers or indicators for aloe that show that it is present in a substance: acemannan, malic acid, and glucose. These markers did not appear when the lab tested the products purchased at the retailers. Instead, the three samples tested contained maltodextin, a cheaper sugar sometimes used in imitation of aloe. A gel sold at Walgreens did contain one aloe marker—malic acid—but not the others. According to Ken Jones, an independent industry consultant, this means that aloe's presence in that product can be neither confirmed nor refuted.
Spokesmen for Wal-Mart, CVS, and Walgreens claimed that their suppliers had confirmed to them that their products were genuine. Target did not comment. Between them, the four chains have 23,000 outlets across the country.
"We stand behind our products"
Bloomberg had the lab analyze four separate gel products: Wal-Mart's Equate Aloe After Sun Gel with pure aloe vera, Target's Up & Up Aloe Vera Gel with pure aloe vera, CVS Aftersun Aloe Vera Moisturizing Gel, and Walgreens Alcohol Free Aloe Vera Body Gel. The lab that carried out the tests requested anonymity to preserve business relationships.
The labs used a technique known as nuclear magnetic resonance to test the products. This method revealed the presence of additives like maltodextrin and other ingredients such as triethanolamine, an emulsifier. In every sample tested, lactic acid—a component indicated the presence of degraded aloe vera—was absent.
Fruit of the Earth is an aloe brand founded in 1980. It claims to have produced the gels for Wal-Mart, Target, and Walgreens. Its aloe supplier was Concentrated Aloe Corp., which claimed to use fair trade organic aloe farmed and processed in Guatemala.
Both of these companies disputed the lab's findings.
John Dondrea is general counsel for Fruit of the Earth. "We've been in the business a long time and we know where the raw ingredients come from," he said. "We stand behind our products.''
Concentraed Aloe Corp. President Tim Meadows said that the technique used by the lab—nuclear magnetic resonance—is unreliable for cosmetics because such products contain numerous ingredients. The presence of these can cause interference in the tests, and there is no way to test for the presence of aloe in finished products.
In addition, Meadows said, maltodextrin is not an adulterant because it can be used in the drying process, and, although there are some methods for processing aloe that take out acemannan, that does not mean that the aloe is not genuine.
The Role of Acemannan
"Acemannan has been misinterpreted,'' he said. "The cosmetics industry requires highly processed aloe. How that affects acemannan is anybody's guess.''
Although nuclear magnetic resonance testing is not designed to study aloe in cosmetics, the results indicate that the plant "is not a major component" in the products tested, said James Neal-Kababick, director of Flora Research Labs, which researches and tests natural products. Independent consultant Ken Jones agreed, saying that he did not see any evidence of either aloe or an interfering substance.
Product Quest Manufacturing, the company that produces the aloe gel sold by CVS, refused to comment or to identify its supplier.
Numerous law firms such as Barbat, Mansour & Suciu are suing the four retailers after separate tests did not find the presence of aloe in their private-label products. The firms are seeking class-action status and restitution for all of the consumers who claim to have been misled by the retailers.
"No reasonable person would have purchased or used the products if they knew the products did not contain any aloe vera,'' wrote the attorneys in a complaint filed on behalf of plaintiffs represented by 10 law firms.
Fruit of the Earth, Wal-Mart, Target, CVS, and Walgreens all denied the allegations.
Independently of the tests commissioned by Bloomberg, ConsumerLab.com said that it had also had Fruit of the Earth-brand Aloe Vera 100% Gel tested using the nuclear magnetic resonance technique. That test, it claimed, did not find any evidence of aloe, though aloe markers were found in a sample taken from a product under a competing brand, Aubrey Organics. ConsumerLab claimed that out of the 12 products it tested—including pills and juices—only six seemed to meet the claims that appeared on their labels.
Jane Wilson is executive director of the International Aloe Science Council, an industry trade group. Wilson said that acemannan is believed to be the property that makes aloe vera so beneficial. According to Jesper Hummeluhr, founder of cosmetics producer Aloe Vera Group APS, if acemannan is not detected, it means either that the aloe was degraded during the manufacturing process or that the product does not contain any aloe. Hummeluhr has been producing aloe items since 1989.
He examined some of the test results without being told the brand names. Upon doing so, he concluded: "What you have there is not aloe. It could be a lot of water and a little bit of aloe added."
Acemannan comprises as much as 15 percent of aloe's chemical makeup. The tests do not register levels below 0.01 percent of dry weight. Dondrea, Fruit of the Earth's general counsel, would not say how much aloe is contained in its gels due to proprietary formulations.
"The plant of immortality"
Aloe vera is farmed in hot climates such as those in Texas and Mexico. Its leaves contain a clear goo used as an ointment in the treatment of burns and other skin issues for millennia. Known as the "plant of immortality" in ancient Egypt, it was depicted on stone carvings 6,000 years ago and was a burial gift for pharaohs. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says that it has also been used as a folk remedy for numerous conditions ranging from diabetes to epilepsy.
This is not the first time there have been concerns raised over imitation aloe. Wilson said that the International Aloe Science Council was created by the industry in the 1980s as increasing numbers of products containing little-to-no aloe began appearing on store shelves. Wilson serves as the executive director of the organization.
Maltodextrin is a light-colored powder that resembles aloe powder and is used as a food additive. It was a common filler or substitute and, according to Wilson, is cheaper than the real thing.
AloeCorp is one of the largest suppliers of raw aloe powder. Jeff Barrie works as a sales manager at the company, and he claims to have seen competitors beat his very lowest prices by half. This, he alleges, means that what they are selling is not aloe. Aloe powder, Barrie said, can cost up to $240 per kilogram, while the same amount of maltodextrin can cost only a few dollars.
According to Barrie, it takes 400 kilos—882 pounds—of aloe leaves to make just one kilogram of aloe powder, which is the ingredient used in finished products such as gels and drinks. The process of making the powder involves removing rinds from the leves and dehydrating the aloe that remains into powder.
"Aloe is all harvested by hand," Barrie said. "It's an involved process and it's not cheap."
There is no conclusive body of scientific research that affirms the healing properties of aloe. Although some studies have indicated that using it can benefit burns and cuts, "there's nothing to hang your hat on" as far as clear evidence, said D. Craig Hopp, program director at the National Center for Complementary and Integrated Health. This, he said, is in part due to the fact that not enough research has been conducted.
Gary Shreeve is vice president of global operations at Forever Living Products, a company selling International Aloe Science Council aloe-certified products. "There's a lot of people that swear by aloe and love it, and if you put it in your product, you'll sell more of it whether it's a cream or a lotion for sunburns,'' he said.
Gels Versus Plants
All of this is a moot point for some people. They prefer to grow the plant itself rather than buy products containing the gel.
Meredith Zielke is one such individual. She works as a documentary filmmaker and uses the plant to cool her skin when her Lyme disease acts up. According to her, it works.
"I like just having it at home to snip it from there," she said. "I just like the comfort and the knowledge of having a plant in your house that can actually heal you."