This past year saw a much heated debate about the sale of ‘fake supplements’ in the US and Canada. In the early part of the year, the New York Attorney General (NYAG), A.G. Schneiderman, accused several large US retailers of selling poor quality herbal supplements based on the use of a technique called DNA barcoding. Just so we are all on the same page, DNA barcoding is an analytical method used to validate the genetic identity of plant material. While this seems like a home-run approach to validating the manufacturing methods used by so many companies, there are some limitations that the NYAG may not have considered. DNA barcode testing can be used to confirm the genetic content of whole plant material, such as the Fenugreek found in Swiss Natural Fenugreek tablets, but is not a reliable method to confirm the identity of any extracted herbal ingredient, such as that in the garlic extract present in Jamieson Odorless Garlic. The reason why this test is not accurate in all situations is based on the fact that the processing of extracts produces an ingredient that contains little to no high quality DNA. Without intact DNA, a genetic analysis would make it seem like the product contains little to none of the ingredient(s) listed on the label. While this isn’t to say that all manufacturers are fully compliant, it does suggest that this may not be the correct test to use for all herbal products across the board.
This whole situation in the US was prompted by a single study conducted out of Ontario where a researcher tested 44 herbal products purchased from the US and Canada and found evidence of fraudulent ingredient claims. It is important to note that in the concluding remarks, the author of the study states that DNA barcoding should be voluntarily used to authenticate raw materials, but does not confirm the acceptability of the test for the evaluation of finished products or extracted materials.
Furthermore, all this buzz about fraudulent supplements this year has prompted CBC Marketplace to prepare their own piece on supplements. It was scheduled to air in November, but has now been pushed to a later date. If you plan on tuning in, I want you to think of this article and how some test methods may not be the tests of choice when confirming the quality of your products. The current tests accepted by Health Canada have been widely used by the herbal industry for years and are considered acceptable to yield high quality herbal products. While the introduction of new technologies, such as DNA barcoding, can assist to further verify herbal identity, it is not currently considered the gold-standard approach to verifying all herbal products.
Whew! That was a long blurb! Just to summarize if you glazed over the science-y part: what you hear in the media is not always correct and there are manufacturers of herbal products which are dedicated to producing high quality products. So don’t fret the next time you are browsing for your herbal products and if you are still somewhat concerned, feel free to review my previous articles on how to choose the best natural health products & dietary supplements here and here.