Botanical Authentication: How DNA Helps Test Product Efficacy

For scientists, there’s nothing more exciting than making new discoveries. It’s twice the thrill when that scientist is a young graduate student – and a hundred times more when his research is recognized by the leading organization funding natural science and engineering research in Canada.

Meet my student and friend, Adam Faller, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Guelph, who was recently awarded the 2020 Postgraduate Scholarships-Doctoral Award given by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Adam’s research focuses on the molecular authentication of natural health products. This research was made possible through our partnership with Herbalife Nutrition, which allowed us to perform our work in local tea fields and at the company’s manufacturing facility in Changsha, China.

Adam Faller studying botanicals
Adam collects botanical samples directly from the field.

Not many students have the opportunity to receive first-hand experience with botanical tracing, right from the source to the final product.

Adam shares his story:

The Challenge of DNA Authentication

I have always been passionate about molecular biology and what DNA can tell us. When I met Steven Newmaster, I found that we had similar interests. I started working with him, focusing on the molecular authentication of botanicals.

When it comes to natural health products, there are always questions about the ingredients, their authenticity, and their efficacy. I challenged myself and asked the following questions:

  1. What can molecular authentication tell us about natural health products?
  2. Does DNA exist in processed products, and is that DNA of sufficient quantity and quality for molecular authentication?
  3. With finished botanical products, DNA can be highly degraded because of all the physically intense industrial processes that raw materials go through. So, can that DNA be used for authentication?

These are all questions I wanted to address through research, but we needed resources to conduct experiments.

Steve connected me with Dr. Yanjun Zhang, a principal scientist in the Natural Products Methods Research team at Herbalife Nutrition. The company was happy to support my work as part of the partnership the company already has with the Natural Health Products Research Alliance at the University of Guelph. That collaboration allowed me to travel to Changsha, China.

An International Academic Experience

In 2017, I traveled to Changsha, China, where I was able to sample and test green tea at every step of processing: from the tea farms, where I picked fresh tea leaves out of the bushes, to green tea, to tea extract in form of powder. I sampled tea and measured DNA quality metrics at each of those steps.

Testing ingredients at an Herbalife Nutrition lab
In the lab, Adam studies green tea extracts using sophisticated DNA authentication processes.

That trip was the highlight of my grad experience. Everyone loves fieldwork, and being able to do it overseas made it a more enriching experience. I spent five weeks doing research, most of which was done on the quality control labs at Herbalife Nutrition’s facility. Fortunately, all of this work culminated in a publication in the Journal of AOAC International.

That understanding of DNA degradation helped me transition my work to look at a new model to test molecular authentication: plant-based protein powders. Can DNA testing be precise enough to be used to validate claims on products? Can it help us find common adulterants? Can we use techniques to check if the reported ratios of ingredient mixtures are accurate? Those are the questions I’m currently exploring. I have already published one paper in Nature’s Scientific Reports journal.

Science Is Teamwork

I like something that Steven Newmaster says: it takes a special coming together of several partners for science breakthroughs to occur. I’ve been lucky to have a mentor like Steven, who is doing groundbreaking research aligned with my professional interests, but also to find an industry partner like Herbalife Nutrition, who has supported my investigation not only by letting me travel to and use their facilities, but by giving me access to first-class scientists for collaboration.

Adam Faller with Dr. Yanjun and another scientist
Adam worked closely with Dr. Yanjun Zhang and fellow scientists at Herbalife Nutrition’s quality labs.

Dr. Yanjun Zhang has served on my advisor committee and has helped guide my work and advise me on what approach to take. I’ve also worked with Gary Swanson and Peter Chang; they helped me organize travel, and collection of all the materials I needed to make my experiments possible.

Having been able to travel to China and do fieldwork there allowed me to create a sound project that set me apart from other fellow students. That put me in a position to be competitive for an award like NSERC. This achievement is directly connected to my China experience because the work I did there resulted in my first notable publication and gave me invaluable international experience. It was an experience of tremendous personal and professional growth.

What the Future Looks Like

Being honored with this award has made me think about my future. I’m interested in applying my findings practically: how can we use this knowledge to improve the natural health products industry?

My goal is to work on quality assurance and control through DNA-based methods, furthering the use of DNA authentication, and helping grow that field.

When all of this comes together, we have a real possibility of advancing science, engaging academics, and elevating the industry’s quality standard.

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.