CSI: Botanical?

Industry hones analysis methods for botanical supplements, but it's not easy.

Analyzing botanical dietary supplements is even harder than spelling them. But as herbal and botanical supplement sales rose to $5.3 billion in 2011, up $1 billion in a decade, it's even more important to analyze what's behind the label throughout the supply chain.

“Botanical products present substantial challenges to both researchers and manufacturers,” writes Jyllian Kemsley in a Chemical and Engineering News cover story published this week. “They are inherently complex substances with a slew of chemical compounds that change with processing. Add in concerns about raw material identity in global supply chains and a regulatory push for better manufacturing practices and quality control, and analysis becomes an increasingly important task.”

The story talks about a few nifty ways the folks in white labs coats have found to sleuth out the the true identity of a plant, powder or extract, like tandem mass spectrometry, chemometrics and other fancy-sounding processes that you can't replicate in your kitchen. Being able to more accurately identify material will be critical to researching the effect of supplements.

According to C&E News, a particular problem in supplement research historically is inadequate description or analysis of the material investigated. “That renders reams of studies “just a few notches above worthless,” says Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council.

Whether a research material was grown nearby and extracted in a lab or obtained commercially, different plant species or processing methods can alter the safety or efficacy of a product by eliminating beneficial compounds, retaining toxic ones, or altering the ratios of components that work synergistically. Consequently, “you can’t reproduce a study if you don’t know exactly what species was used, what part of the plant was used, and how it was prepared,” Richard B. van Breemen, a professor of medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy (the study of meds derived from natural sources) at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and director of a National Institutes of Health-funded botanical research center focusing on supplements for women’s health, tells C&E News. Inconsistencies and lack of a paper trail are often why research into the efficacy of botanicals has shown mixed results. It's one reason that NIH’s National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine developed its natural product integrity policy, which outlines required identification, preparation, and characterization information for projects it funds.

Developing and disseminating new analytical techniques should help get the industry into more rigorous scientific footing, say sources in the story. The effort so far, however, hasn't been easy. Progress lacks the speed – and cinematography – of the rock and roll lab stories on “CSI.” Stay tuned.

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