Botanical identification and testing: it sounds glamorous and sexy, does it not? Well, no matter how it sounds, it plays a vital part in producing quality food supplements. If a brand or manufacturer does not verify the identity of their ingredients, how can they deliver quality products to the consumer, let alone safe ones? Brands or manufacturers must set specifications for dietary ingredients per regulatory guidelines. However, regardless of regulations, appropriate specs should be set for any ingredient to be used in the manufacture of supplements. A spec should have a minimum of one criterion establishing the ingredient’s identity. Setting a specification alone does not ensure the ingredient is as represented by the supplier. A spec is only as good as the paper it’s written on if it is unverified. That’s where testing enters the process.
At first glance, botanical identification appears trivial; look at a plant and identify what it is. If only it were so easy. Many, if not most, ingredients arrive at a manufacturer’s facility as a very un-plant-like powder. What is one to do? Since visual appearance cannot be used to identify the material (all green powders look suspiciously similar), we must rely on chemistry.
There are several analytical chemistry techniques one can employ to identify botanical ingredients. It is important to differentiate here between techniques and methods. Methods are procedures describing the conditions under which the technique is executed to obtain a result. For example, a method for identifying Ginkgo biloba leaf may use the technique high performance thin layer chromatography (HPTLC). Other examples of techniques are high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and near infrared spectroscopy (NIR). Each technique has strengths and weaknesses based upon many factors, some of which are selectivity, cost, and ease of use.
In home repair, one must use the proper tool to perform the task at hand. I can use a hammer to drive a screw, but my results may be unexpected at best and deleterious at worst. The same can be said for botanical identification. Knowledge of the botanical ingredient should be used to design test methods which verify an identity specification. Whole dried plant material, crude ground plant material and standardised powdered extracts all require different approaches to establish their identity. Depending upon the ingredient, multiple test methods using multiple techniques may be required to verify the ingredient’s identity. Returning to the ginkgo example, suppose the ingredient was a standardised ginkgo extract. One method may identify it as ginkgo, while another method may demonstrate that it has not been adulterated with Sophora japonica.
Brands and manufacturers should engage in increased scrutiny of their supply chains in the current environment. Some ingredients in short supply are ripe for adulteration. Ingredients supporting immune function are a prime example. High prices and dwindling availability make this an attractive target for less scrupulous suppliers.
John Travis is a senior research scientist with NSF International. He has more than 20 years of experience in analysis of target analytes and method development, utilizing techniques such as gas and high-performance liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry, and holds a degree in chemistry from the University of Michigan.
Travis will be one of the two instructors leading “Botanical Identification and Testing”, a two-part testing course that is part of NSF’s Quality & Regulatory Digital Week. The course will take place on 6 August from 19:00 to 21:00 BST, and on 7 August from 15:00 to 17:00 BST. To learn more about this two-part virtual training or get registered, click here.