Identification of phosphodiesterase type-5 (PDE-5) inhibitors in herbal supplements using a tiered approach and associated consumer risk

Felicia Akuamoa*, Toine F.H. Bovee, Ruud van Dam, Lilian Maro, Sebastiaan Wesseling, Jacques Vervoort, Ivonne M.C.M. Rietjens, Ron L.A.P. Hoogenboom

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


The use of herbal supplements for improved sexual performance is a common practice amongst the youth and some senior citizens in Ghana. These products are considered ‘natural’ and greatly preferred over synthetic alternatives due to the assurance of little to no adverse effects by producers. However, the high rate of adulteration often compromises their safety. Forty herbal supplements, of which 25 were previously shown to result in medium to high intake of phosphodiesterase type-5 (PDE-5) inhibitors using a PDE-Glo bioassay, were further investigated using liquid chromatography–tandem mass spectrometry (LC–MS/MS) analysis to examine the reliability of the bioassay and whether the observed higher responses could be ascribed to inherent plant constituents or adulterants. Results showed significant amounts of vardenafil, tadalafil and especially sildenafil, in 2, 1 and 10 samples, respectively, with total concentration levels resulting in estimated daily intakes (EDIs) above 25 mg sildenafil equivalents with six supplements even having EDIs above 100 mg sildenafil equivalents. Only one sample contained a natural ingredient (icariin), but its concentration (0.013 mg g−1) was too low to explain the observed potency in the bioassay. The estimated concentrations of PDE-5 inhibitors in 35 supplements, according to the bioassay, were in line with those of the LC–MS/MS analysis. However, discrepancies were observed for five supplements. Further examination of one of the latter supplements using the PDE-Glo bioassay to select the positive fraction and further examination with LC–MS/MS and 1H-NMR revealed the presence of hydroxythiohomosildenafil, a sildenafil analogue not yet included in the liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry reference library. This study demonstrates the significance of applying a tiered approach, where the use of a bioassay is followed by chemical analysis of bioactive samples in order to identify unknown bioactive compounds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1021-1032
JournalFood Additives and Contaminants - Part A Chemistry, Analysis, Control, Exposure and Risk Assessment
Issue number6
Early online date24 Mar 2022
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jun 2022


  • adulteration
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • herbal supplement
  • LC–MS/MS
  • PDE-5 inhibitor
  • PDE-Glo bioassay


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