Nearly 80 per cent of Chinese patent medicines (CPM) are mislabelled, according to results of a DNA barcoding technique developed at the University of Guelph.

Prof. Steve Newmaster and his research team developed a technique that will extend the use of DNA barcoding to quality testing of natural health products

The methods developed in this new Nature – Scientific Reports study will extend the use of DNA barcoding to quality testing of natural health products, the researchers say.

A team of scientists at U of G’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO) working with Chinese researchers examined 20 extracts and 47 CPMs.  Contents matched ingredients listed on the labels in only 17 per cent of the extracts and 22 per cent of the CPMs.

The team tested for Lonicerae japonicae Flos, or East Asian honeysuckle. The dried leaves and flowers of the plant are used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat fevers, coughs, headaches and sore throats.

“We found significant adulteration in these products; people are not getting what they are paying for,” said study co-author and integrative biology professor Steve Newmaster. “Too often this is the case with natural health products. But now we have found a way to effectively test these medicines using this new technique. Consumers will know what they are putting in their bodies.”

Newmaster led a 2013 study that found significant adulteration of herbal products. This new study extends the use of DNA barcoding by analyzing the plant’s unique features to identify the ingredients in the medicines.

Newmaster plans to use this strategy with other medications.

The BIO team recently started the Natural Health Products Research Alliance (NHPRA) to make DNA barcoding more accessible.

“We are getting closer to bringing this technology to the market,” said Newmaster, who directs the NHPRA.

“In a global world, it can be difficult to track sources and ensure product quality. The pressure to save money often leads to product adulteration. Can we help solve this issue? We believe we can.”

Newmaster said the technology will work on all natural health products, including vitamins and probiotics.

“This tool is helpful to consumers and manufacturers. Products can be certified, building trust in companies. In the future, you will know a product is being tested.”