DNA Testing of Botanical Ingredients Has Arrived
By Gary Swanson, Senior Vice President, Global Quality, Herbalife Nutrition
September 22, 2016
Today, there are an estimated 2,000 botanical ingredients in products found on United States store shelves. Botanical ingredients such as aloe vera leaf, ginger root and chamomile flower are gaining in popularity. However, confirming the authenticity, origin and quality of these ingredients can be challenging and complicated due to their diversity, complex mixture of natural phytochemicals, and technological advances in processing.
Scientists have developed a variety of test methods and evaluation techniques for botanicals. Sometimes, even simply confirming the identity of a botanical ingredient can be multifaceted and may involve more than one test method. With all of this complexity and the abundance of botanicals already on the market, how does a company, for example, assure that the aloe vera leaf juice in an aloe beverage is derived from real Aloe vera plants?
When it comes to our botanical products at Herbalife Nutrition, we’ve implemented an industry-leading botanical science program to assure that what is on the label is what is in the product and that we only use quality botanical ingredients.
Focus on Botanicals
Our company leadership had the foresight to initiate a botanical evaluation program in 2010 to go beyond the basic regulatory requirements. We created a botanical scientific community inside Herbalife and, together, we spent approximately 3.5 years reviewing, analyzing and validating the entire portfolio of 150 botanical ingredients found in our products. The process continues for new botanical ingredients added to our product portfolio.
We have raised the bar on botanical ingredient testing by investing in three key areas:
- Technology – We have invested in the purchase of next-generation sequencing equipment, including more than $1 million combined for a nuclear magnetic resonance imager, High Performance Liquid Chromatography, a gene sequencer and other technologies. We’ve also spent $275,000 to diversify our Genomic/DNA laboratory. This equipment will allow us to improve our DNA analytical techniques for processed botanicals, including extracts.
- Expertise – We have five Ph.D.s exclusively dedicated to botanical research, which amounts to more than $500,000 a year in human capital.
- Botanical Extraction Capability – We are one of the only nutrition companies in the world to have our own comprehensive program to completely characterize botanical ingredients from field to product. Herbalife Innovation and Manufacturing in Changsha is a 234,000-square-foot botanical extraction facility in Hunan Province, China that supplies 2.7 metric tons of powdered extracts per day.
These investments in development, analytical testing and quality control provide more confidence to consumers, regulators and anyone interested in the identity, purity and efficacy of botanical ingredients found in our dietary supplements and food products.
A political challenge that did not involve Herbalife Nutrition shined the spotlight on ingredient testing and verification in 2015. Using a “DNA barcoding technique” to analyze selected herbal supplement products, the Attorney General for the State of New York accused four major retailers, GNC, Target, Wal-Mart and Walgreens, of allegedly selling store brand herbal supplement products that either could not be verified to contain the labeled botanicals or which were found to contain ingredients not listed on the labels.
Even though we were not involved in the matter, we believe the action signals a demand for more transparency when it comes to the botanicals products. At Herbalife Nutrition, we are leading the way in testing and technology for the nutrition industry. While many companies conduct basic botanical testing to satisfy regulatory requirements, there are only a few, including Herbalife Nutrition, that are using advanced technologies such as DNA identification to more accurately identify and characterize botanicals.
AOAC Annual Meeting
Our commitment to excellence extends beyond our company to the rest of the industry. Herbalife Nutrition is raising the scientific and quality bar by sharing our information and expertise externally. This month, a group of Herbalife Nutrition scientists attended the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists (AOAC) 130th Annual Meeting & Exposition in Dallas, Texas. AOAC INTERNATIONAL is a non-profit scientific association that publishes standardized, chemical analysis methods designed to increase confidence in results of chemical and microbiologic analyses.
Herbalife was honored to participate in the meeting for the second year in a row and we sponsored a Symposium for Botanical Dietary Supplement Ingredients Authentication – Determining Appropriate Reference Materials for Botanicals and their Extracts. We invited five renowned botanical scientists to present on various topics critical to ensuring botanical identity and Herbalife Nutrition scientists Yanjun Zhang, Ph.D., and Peter Chang, vice president, Quality Control, co-chaired the event.
We were also excited that our paper on DNA testing methodologies was accepted for presentation at the meeting. This was the first DNA testing paper ever to be presented by Herbalife Nutrition to AOAC and we think this is ground breaking for the company and the industry. And we had nine additional poster presentations that summarize the industry-leading research and work we’ve done in the laboratory in analytical chemistry, particularly on botanical identification. Experts often spend hours presenting and discussing their posters, which become part of AOAC’s official documents. The posters presented in Dallas covered a range of analytical methodologies and advancements in vitamin testing, protein powder testing, DNA extraction, botanical extraction and aloe testing, among others.
As part of our goal to become the premier nutrition company, we continue to explore potential partnerships with the industry, leading universities and scientific associations that enable us to advance our DNA technology research and expand our current analytical capabilities. Over the summer, for example, respected botanical experts from the University of Guelph in Canada visited Herbalife Nutrition and we are partnering with United States Pharmacopeia and AOAC to develop official analytical test methods for the industry.