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DNA Testing of Herbal Supplements

DNA Testing of Herbal Supplements – Is it Worth?

There is a heated debate over the quality of the herbal supplements sold in the market.  With majority retailers making fraud claims about these supplements, it requires stringent rules and regulations for their quality control.

A consumer takes a herbal supplement for its purported health benefits, which are attributed to the plant source of the product. He knows that the herbal supplements are derived from a plant source and are, therefore, safe to consume.

But, that’s not the complete truth.

The purported benefits of the plant source of these supplements are attributed to its constituents. In order for these constituents to be present in the right amount, the plant should be grown in the right environmental conditions and processed appropriately.

That’s why DNA testing becomes important for the herbal supplements.

DNA is the genetic building block of all living organisms; plants, bacteria, animals and human beings.  It is present in every part of an organism.

But, is DNA testing worth it? Can we know everything about the herbal supplements through DNA testing?

DNA testing helps to authenticate a botanical species if it doesn’t show the desired botanical characteristics or the amount of the material is very limited. For example, Black Cohosh or Actaea Racemosa is a plant native to North America. It differs from other species of the genus Actaea found in other parts of the world. Black Cohosh is the only species with proven health benefits, but there are several species outside of North America that are often confused with the authentic Black Cohosh. DNA testing can help to distinguish between North American and non-North American species of Black Cohosh.

However, DNA extracted from a particular plant will be the same, whether it is obtained from its stem, roots or leaves. Thus, we can identify the plant from DNA testing. But, we won’t know the part of the plant from which the DNA was extracted.

Secondly, DNA testing can’t tell us the environmental conditions in which the plant is grown. So, we can’t guarantee whether the plant was grown in the right environmental conditions or not.

Moreover, these herbal supplements are produced after extracting the therapeutic compounds from the desired plant. Solvents like water and alcohol or heat are used in this extraction process. This may degrade or even destroy the DNA in the extracted material.

Thus, it’s possible that when target compounds are extracted from their plant source to make a herbal ingredient, there’s no longer any detectable DNA present in the final product. In such cases, it becomes difficult to perform DNA testing on such products.

Here lies the importance of other tests like chemical analysis to detect the presence of target compounds in herbal supplements. While DNA testing is a useful technology to detect the presence of the target compound in the supplement, it can’t determine its quantity.  On the other hand, chemical analysis tests help to determine the strength of a supplement in a quantitative manner.

That’ the reason why DNA testing became an official technology recognized by US Pharmacopeia in December 2014, but it is applied mostly to non-extracted plant materials and as a complement to other chemical tests.

So, it can be concluded that DNA testing seems worthy for herbal testing but not as a standalone. Other chemical tests are required to ascertain the safety and efficacy of the herbal supplements.

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