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27% of herbal products in the World are adulterated, DNA says it!

The use of herbal products in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical fields is an increasingly widespread and appreciated practice. In recent years, the phytotherapeutic market and the natural cosmetic market have undergone a strong increase. The first saw growth of 6.4% and is worth 2.5 billion today, 10% of the turnover of the pharmaceutical market, while the second, for example in Italy, covers more than 10% of the Italian cosmetic market, with a value of 1,050 million euros (Cosmetica Italia Beauty report 2018).

This growth is affected by the change in consumer behaviour that is increasingly attentive to health and sustainability aspects. These types of products are considered more natural, less aggressive and therefore perceived as safer and less harmful than products with chemical components.

A very long supply chain

To date, the supply chain of herbal products is extremely complex, involving different stakeholders from various parts of the world and lacking a shared regulation between the States involved. For example, the same product in one country can be considered and regulated as a drug while in another as food.

Furthermore, the various processes carried out (drying, grinding, pulverizing etc.) lead to the loss of morphological features, an aspect that makes contamination simple and the raw material difficult to recognize also through traditional analyses identified by the pharmacopoeia (macroscopic, microscopic and chemical analyses).

All these aspects, together with an increase in the increasingly difficult demand to be covered with the available products and the spread of electronic commerce, lead to the increase in cases of adulteration, contamination or substitution, more or less voluntary of herbal products in all points of the supply chain.

DNA to identify the species and identify adulterations.

The study published by Frontiers in Pharmacology aimed at carrying out the first global survey on the authenticity of herbal products has shown that 27% of the analysed products through genetic methodologies are not compliant with what is reported on the label. The DNA analysis is currently the only method capable of identifying a particular species and identifying contaminations even after some processing and the loss of morphological characters.

Here are some of the most common mistakes:

1) Absence of the species declared on the label. This is, for example, the case of hypericum (Hypericum perforatum), a plant commonly used to treat depressive disorders, anxiety and sleep, found only in 68% of the products in which it was reported as an ingredient.

2) Replacement of a species of high value with one of lower value, as in the case of Cinnamon cassia, easy to confuse with Cinnamon verum, the real cinnamon, very similar to sight and smell but with a superior economic value.

3) Replacement of similar species but with different expected effects. This is the case of the mexican arnica (Heterotheca inuloides) very similar to Arnica montana but with much weaker anti-inflammatory properties.

4) Possible contaminations. Within the analysed products some contaminant species have been identified, that are not declared on the label, some of which are able to influence or impede the efficacy of some medicines such as: ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), ginger (Zingiber officinale), ginseng (Panax ginseng), green tea (Camellia sinensis) and garlic (Allium sativum).

This study, therefore, highlights the considerable risks associated with the adulteration of herbal products and the need for effective tools and shared regulations for controlling the entire supply chain to meet growing demand.

Moreover, it is clear the usefulness of a DNA control to monitor the production, from the field to the shelf, of high-quality herbal products.

Ichim, M. C. (2019). The DNA-based Authentication of Commercial Herbal Products Reveals their Globally Widespread Adulteration. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 10, 1227.


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