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Tracing the supply chain of medicinal herbs, from the field to the shelf, with the help of DNA.

According to data published by Persistence Market Reasearch, the market for plant food supplements in recent years is undergoing a sharp increase, so much so that it is estimated that in 2025 this could be worth around 65 billion dollars.

A positive influence on the development of this sector derives undoubtedly from the adoption of a healthier lifestyle by an increasing number of consumers. A change that translates into the purchase of high quality products and a particular attention to their organoleptic characteristics.

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In this scenario, a leading role is played by medicinal herbs and all the products derived from them. Plant supplements but also herbal teas, extracts, essential oils thanks to their active ingredients and their properties have beneficial effects on the body both physically and mentally. However, their consumption must always be carried out consciously in order to avoid the occurrence of side effects.

The regulatory problem

From a regulatory point of view the situation of plant supplements is not entirely clear. To date there is no shared regulation between the various countries that is able to guarantee safety, quality and adequate controls along the entire production chain. This lack, added to an increasing demand for high quality products, leads to the increase of cases of substitution and adulteration linked to fraud or simply to errors that can be interconnected throughout the supply chain, even with negative effects on the health of consumers. It therefore becomes necessary to identify methodologies capable of efficiently tracing herbal products, from the field to the shelf, thus ensuring its beneficial effects.

The study

The validity of genetic identification as a tool capable of evaluating and verifying the quality and safety of materials even after processing such as drying or grinding is now proven. However, this methodology is not always effective on the finished product. Overly aggressive processing can lead to excessive degradation of the DNA which consequently cannot be used to perform the analysis. The study conducted by the researchers of the University of Milano-Bicocca and FEM2-Ambiente was born with the aim of evaluating the cases in which the DNA barcoding methodology proves to be an effective tool to trace the entire production process, from the collection of the officinal plant up to the packaged supplement sold to the final consumer.

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The results of this study, published in the Journal of Applied Botany and Food Quality, show that DNA tends to be preserved in those products obtained through hydro-alcoholic treatments, with low percentages of ethanol (<40%) or with water treatments at low temperatures. Furthermore the ultrasound extraction proves to be the most capable of safeguarding the DNA of the raw material, allowing the correct success of the analyzes. Under these conditions the possibility of tracing the product along all the phases of its supply chain increases considerably, thus increasing the possibility of protecting the consumer with safe and high quality products of plant origin.

…evaluating the cases in which the DNA barcoding methodology proves to be an effective tool to trace the entire production process…

Frigerio J., Gorini T., Galimberti A., Bruni I., Tommasi N., Mezzasalma V. and Labra M. (2019). DNA barcoding to trace Medicinal and Aromatic Plants from the field to the food supplementJournal of Applied Botany and Food Quality 92, 33– 38, DOI:10.5073/JABFQ.2019.092.005


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