DNA barcoding developed by Univ. of Guelph researchers has proven up to 88 percent effective in authenticating natural health products, according to a new study.
The study appears in the latest issue of Food Research International.
It’s a crucial finding because the health product industry is under-regulated worldwide and mislabeling poses economic, health, legal and environmental implications, says study author Mehrdad Hajibabaei.
“Currently there is no other broadly applicable tool that can identify the species used in both animal and plant natural health products as rapidly and cost-effectively,” says Hajibabaei, a U of G integrative biology professor and director of technology development for the Guelph-based Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO).
Up to about 80 percent of people in developed countries use natural health products, including vitamins, minerals and herbal remedies. In Canada, these products have been regulated since 2004. But regulators face a backlog of license applications, and thousands of products on the market lack a full product license. In the U.S. and the U.K., regulatory problems involving natural health products have affected consistency and safety.
Authenticating natural product capsules or tablets – containing dried fragments rather than whole specimens – poses challenges.
DNA barcoding allows scientists to use short standardized regions of genetic material to identify species and compare them to reference genetic sequences, says Hajibabaei.
The technique works for all life stages and even for fragments of organisms, allowing scientists to ID even dried contents of a small pill.
“DNA barcoding provides a simple and efficient method for accurate identification and can play a key role in developing a more robust protocol for their regulation,” Hajibabaei says.
For the study, researchers tested 95 plant and animal products bought in Toronto and New York City. Samples included capsules, tablets, roots, extracts, teas and shredded products. The researchers also sampled for products containing widely used shark tissue or ginseng.
Fully 81 percent of natural health products made from animals correctly matched their commercial label. The rest contained everything from cheaper alternatives to fragments of protected species. One product labeled as tiger shark fins actually contained a catfish species.
Several of the identified shark species are on the “red list” of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Half of the plant products labeled as Korean ginseng – which is more expensive and is sold for different medicinal benefits than other types – were really American ginseng.
“Ultimately, the study showcases the utility of DNA barcodes for use in the real world,” Hajibabaei says.