Botanical Testing: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

The nutritional benefits of plants are usually only available if you have genuine ingredients: if you seek authentic botanical ingredients, then you need to go to the source. That is why validation of the raw botanical supply chain is paramount for quality assurance. One way to check the quality is using biotechnology based forensic botany in which we extract DNA from the raw ingredients and then conduct a molecular diagnostic test. DNA is verified, routine tools for species identity testing in the food industry to make sure ingredients do not contain food borne pathogens. We are working to develop verified DNA testing methods for botanicals in collaboration with industry leaders such as Herbalife Nutrition that seek a gold standard in quality control. Once the DNA is sequenced it can be matched to a botanical reference material (RM) library –a comprehensive library for thousands of species from around the globe– in order to reveal the species identity of each ingredient.

The NHP Research Alliance, based at the University of Guelph, is an initiative that aims to develop new, mutually agreed upon standards for botanical species ingredient authentication. Herbalife Nutrition, who recently joined the Alliance, is engaging DNA-based tools to ensure their nutrition products consist of the exact species of plants and botanicals needed to support their health claims.

As a 3rd party University test lab, we recently provided a critical quality assessment of Herbalife Nutrition’s botanical supply chain. Our investigation included one of Herbalife Nutrition’s flagship products: Cookies and Cream Formula 1 Healthy Meal Nutritional Shake Mix. All of the raw botanical ingredients used in this product were sent to our University lab, where we extracted DNA and were able to positively identify every ingredient that concluded them to be authentic.

The Formula 1 Shake product formula included multiple tests of raw botanicals, including Carica papaya (papaya), Zingiber officinale (ginger), Vaccinium angustifolium (blueberry) and Punica granatum (pomengranate). The ingredients contained lots of good quality DNA for an unequivocal identity validation for every species. The TRU-ID DNA testing method and certification standard was implemented as a gold standard for DNA testing of ingredients in this study.

Herbalife Nutrition and the NHP Research Alliance at the University of Guelph are co-developing a pilot project for three Herbalife Nutrition products in a NHP Product Supply Chain Verification program in which all ingredients are verified authentic by a two-step process:

  1. Co-developing raw ingredient supplier DNA and chemical standard botanical reference material (RM) libraries that are verified against comprehensive botanical RM database housed at the University of Guelph.
  2. On-site testing standard operating protocols (SOP), including DNA primers, probes, sequences and chemical fingerprints (NMR models) that allow Herbalife Nutrition staff to engage in a rigorous, on-site DNA based biotechnology for quality assurance identity verification.

It is very inspiring to see companies like Herbalife Nutrition making the investment in cutting edge biotechnology to ensure quality control in the supply chain of nutritional ingredients. This demonstrates industry leadership, transparency, and a commitment to high quality brands that consumers can trust.

Steven Newmaster

Steven NewmasterDirector, Natural Health Products (NHP) Research Alliance

Dr. Newmaster has been a Botany & Genomics professor at the University of Guelph, Canada for more than 20 years. His research has resulted in the development of policy on biodiversity and international trade of botanicals, including product authentication certification within the food and natural product industry within Canada, USA, Europe, and Asia. He advises on the authentication of herbal products to regulators and is developing new QA/QC industry standards for testing natural ingredient authenticity.