Why We Visit Tea Farms in China: Quality Starts at the Source

As I gazed out the window of our Jeep, I was captivated by the dazzling contrast of the landscape. In the distance, a bullet train sped through at 300 kilometers an hour, and in the fields, farmers in straw hats were heaving wooden carts loaded with lush green foliage down a timeworn cobblestone path.

I was in the heart of rural China where people have used plants for nutrition for thousands of years. Having dedicated my professional life to botanicals, I felt humbled.

We have so much to learn from these antique and honest cultures, and if we are to make strides in botanical innovation, we must gather what we can from both modern science and traditional knowledge.

Why We Collect Specimen from the Source

My good friend and colleague Dr. Yanjun, a senior scientist at Herbalife Nutrition, accompanied me to collect botanical specimen – precious collections to be revisted later in a molecular DNA lab.

To ensure that customers get authentic ingredients that support good health, the industry needs to adopt a more comprehensive authentication process that starts from the source. Gathering botanicals at the front of the supply chain will lead to better quality assurance of natural products such as tea.

Voucher collections – this is, botanical specimens that are retained as a reference – allow scientists to expand our botanical archive, which serves as a reference for building DNA and chemical libraries. This aids us in researching the health benefits of plant products, which in turn, benefits the consumer by providing them with verified data they can use to make better-informed decisions.

Responsible companies like Herbalife Nutrition play an important role in building a voucher collection at the source, and in our case, we were visiting tea farms that supply Herbalife Nutrition’s tea.

Dr. Steven Newmaster in China

Importance of Working with Genuine Ingredients

“Stop the truck!” I said to the driver as we passed by clumps of wild tea bushes. The site, dotted with silky white-petaled flowers, was pure, simple, yet beautiful and profound. We bolted from the truck and expertly started clipping and filling our plant presses.

For botanists, it is very exciting when we spot a unique pattern of genetic variations in a plant, because it is critical to assembling comprehensive genomic and metabolomic libraries. This data is then matched against the end product – dried leaves, powders, and extracts. Through DNA identity testing, we can validate if the correct plant species were in fact used, leaving no room for assumptions of the tea’s authenticity and origins.

The whole process requires a lot of work, but we do this to fulfill our shared goal of creating a transparent supply chain with comprehensive quality assurance principles. Ultimately, we want consumers to rest assured, knowing that the natural products they consume are in fact made from genuine, verified ingredients.

Why Authentication Matters to Consumers

Adulteration – or the action of adding substitute ingredients – is a reality in the natural products industry. This is in part due to the lack of vouchered collections, comprehensive libraries, and third-party validations to ensure ingredient identity.

The industry has an obligation to provide authentic ingredients to the customer. If a product is adulterated, then you may not get the nutritional benefits you thought you were paying for.

It fills me with hope when industry leaders such as Herbalife Nutrition and other reputable companies step up to collectively raise the industry standards to achieve excellence. Through comprehensive voucher and DNA-chemical barcode libraries, we will be able to perform forensic testing to drastically reduce food fraud and contamination.

Our vision is to build collections from farms and the finished products from all over the globe. With this data, we will be able to develop scientifically valid tests for a truly transparent supply chain of genuine botanical ingredients.

China tea farmer

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.