Background: Researchers report that most herbal products, available as alternative medicines, may be contaminated. There is no “best practice” for identifying plant species in herbal products. Traditionally, plants are identified through the appearance of the whole plant. But this method is not useful when analyzing processed plant material. DNA barcoding analyzes a short genetic sequence from the plant’s genome and identifies small differences, thus allowing species identification. In a recent study, investigators used barcoding to examine the plant species found in a sample of herbal plant produces.
Results: Of the products examined, 59 percent had plant species not listed on the labels. Over tw0-thirds of the products tested had plant species present which were a substitute for the plants listed on the label, and a third of products also contained other species that may be a filler or contamination.
My Take: Caveat emptos (buyer beware). The World Health Organization views the adulteration of herbal products as a threat to public safety. In the current analysis, investigators detected plant species that could pose serious health risks when consumed. It would be nice to have some certification process, perhaps through the use of barcoding. I’m Dr. Michael Hunter.
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Reference: Newmaster SG et al. DNA barcoding detects contamination and subsitution in North American herbal products. BMC Medicine, October 2013 DOI:10.1186/1741-70150110222