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DNA Bar Codes Help Authenticate Natural Health Products

DNA strand (NSF)

(James. J. Caras, National Science Foundation)

Researchers at University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada found DNA identification successfully verified a vast majority of natural health products sold  in two North American cities. The study led by Mehrdad Hajibabaei, in Guelph’s integrative biology department and Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, appears online in the journal Food Research International (paid subscription required).

Hajibabaei says DNA bar coding makes it possible for short standardized regions of genetic material to identify species and compare them to reference genetic sequences. The technique can work at all life stages and even for fragments of organisms. With the technique, scientists can identify even dried contents of a small pill.

Regulation is a continuing issue for natural health products, which tend to be under-regulated worldwide and where mislabeling of products can cause economic, health, and environmental problems. As a result, DNA bar coding has the potential to help regulators verify the contents of these products. “Currently there is no other broadly applicable tool,” says Hajibabaei, “that can identify the species used in both animal and plant natural health products as rapidly and cost-effectively.”

In the study, the Guelph researchers tested 95 plant and animal products bought in Toronto and New York City. The products tested included capsules, tablets, roots, extracts, teas and shredded products. The researchers also sampled separately for products containing shark tissue and ginseng.

Using DNA bar codes, the team correctly identifed three-quarters (75%) of all natural health products tested, with higher success rates for shark (83%) and ginseng products (88%). For natural health products with animal origins, some eight in 10 products (81%) correctly match their labels.

The team reports that mislabeled products include cheaper alternatives and fragments of protected species. One product labeled as tiger shark fins actually contained a type of catfish. DNA bar codes also found several shark species on the Red List of threatened species published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Another commonly mislabeled product found by the Guelph researchers is ginseng. They report half of the plant products labeled as Korean ginseng were really American ginseng. Korean ginseng is more expensive and sold for different medicinal benefits than other types.

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