Cold-Blooded Investigator Targets Herbal DNA

| By Steven Foster

Ginkgo leaf; Ginkgo biloba; Ginkgo leaf close-ups horizontal (landscape) aspectTuesday February 3, 2015, the New York Attorney General, Eric T. Schneiderman, issued a press release on an action taken the previous day in which his office delivered “cease and desist” letters to four major retails including GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart alleging that they were selling herbal dietary supplements that did not contain the plant materials listed on the product labels. The herbs included Echinacea, Garlic, Ginseng, St. John’s Wort, and Saw Palmetto. According to the Attorney General’s press release 79% of the products tested, either did not contain the plant material claimed on the label or contained other plant materials not listed on the label. All of the products were “store brands,” made by contract manufacturers.

“This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: the old adage ‘buyer beware’ may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “The DNA test results seem to confirm long-standing questions about the herbal supplement industry. Mislabeling, contamination, and false advertising are illegal.” “Seem” is the operative word here.

Schneiderman has apparently been watching too many episodes of CSI “city du jour” in which the DNA always solves the crime. DNA analysis for plants is great for botanicals or plant specimens in which intact DNA still exist, but if you are testing an extracted plant ingredient—PRESTO—the DNA except in rare cases no  longer exists!

Every qualified, experienced plant analytical laboratory that authenticates botanicals day-in-and-day-out, knows that DNA alone is unreliable for testing plant extracts. Instead validated chemical analytical methods along with other validated lab methods are used. See link at the end of this article to see the American Herbal Pharmacopeia’s 54-page response to Attorney General Schneiderman which includes the appropriate lab methods to i.d. of the plant extracts in question.

A retired plant scientist friend mused, “if DNA testing is required for validating plant ingredients claimed to be in any product, the supermarket shelves would be empty.” If Schneiderman had applied the same DNA method to the brown liquid in the cup of coffee he might have drunk before his news conference, the test would have likely shown that his cup of coffee contained no detectable DNA of the coffee plant!

This is a case in which a public official, under the guise of science, has made allegations without confirming the validity of the science. Curiously, no plant genomic scientists I know had heard of the lab or researcher who did the testing! Turns out they hired a DNA lab specializing in reptile and dinosaur identification! I suppose that New York Attorney General Eric T.  Schneiderman decided to hire this lab after he had heard that the lab was run by “cold-blooded scientific investigators.”

A version of this story was published in the Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper in the Nature of Eureka column on 11 February 2015.

See response to the New York AG from Roy Upton, Founder and Executive Director of The American Herbal Pharmacopeia, which supplies a rational response to an irrational action.

This is a continuing story.

Ginseng’s Cross-Cultural Virility

By Steven Foster |

When the first published Western description of ginseng appeared in a French journal in 1713, there was no mention of ginseng’s reputation as an aphrodisiac or to enhance virility, likely because the earliest European writers on ginseng were Jesuit priests. In 1725 Pope Benóit XIII received a gift of ginseng from the Chinese Emperor. No comment from the Vatican.

Asian ginseng, Korean Ginseng, Chinese Ginseng, Panax ginseng; 人参; Ren Shen; ren-shenVirginian, Colonel William Byrd II (1674-1744), pictured in a 1725 portrait, with confident swagger was an obvious ginseng nibbler. Writing on 31 May 1737 to Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753, British Museum founder ) he muses, “Insomuch that were I to judge the veracity of the Jesuits by this Instance, I shou’d pronounce them very honest Fellows. As for the merry Effects ascribd to it towards obliging the Bashfull Sex, the good [Jesuit] Father[s] say nothing of it, nor dos my Experience reach so far.” In a letter of 20 August 1737 to Sloane, Byrd continues, “I believe ever since the Tree of Life has been so strongly guarded the Earth has never produced any vegetable so friendly to man as Ginseng. Nor do I say this at Random, or by the Strength of my Faith, but by my own Experience. I have found it very cordial and reviving after great Fatigue, it warms the Blood frisks the Spirits strengthens the Stomach and comforts the Bowels exceedingly. All this it performs without any of those naughty Effects that might make men too troublesome and impertinent to their poor Wives.”  Oh, but the mistresses. . .

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng roots,  西洋参, xi yang shen Some 18th century Dr. Oz probably hawked ginseng root on a London street corner with a wink and a smile to the passerby. But where there’s health claims for herbs, there’s always an all-knowing expert to debunk it, like Scottish physician, William Cullen (1710-1790), in his 1789 Materia Medica (vol 2, p.161)—“I have known a gentleman a little advanced in life, who chewed a quantity of this root every day for several years, but who acknowledged that he never found his venereal faculties in the least improved by it.”

Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng; 西洋参; xi yang shenThe protocol of the famed Dr. Cullen was followed for treatment of George Washington’s sore throat on what became his last day in December 1799: blood letting (124 ounces removed), blistering his throat with an irritating beetle, copious evacuation of the bowels—and when all else—fails, a dose of mercury. Two of the three attending physicians achieved their medical degrees under the instruction of Dr. Cullen at the University of Edinburgh.

Cause of death? “Learned quackery,” to quote sectarian rival contemporaries.

References [to follow]

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius

Guide to Prime Time Ginseng Poaching

By Steven Foster |

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng roots, 西洋参, xi yang shenHey Y’all! You don’t have to be a bearded blowhard bigot chokin’ on duck call drool to make piles of money on a cable network. Nope, no need for swamp water squishin’ between ‘yur  toes! There’s a new opportunity in them ‘thar hills to show the world just how much of a thrill-seekin’, not-too-bright, thief you can be in your quest to show how every conceivable aspect of greed can drive a conservationist to drink. Join the fun! Just plop yourself in front of the boob tube with a can of your favorite brand of American-made world’s-worst-beers and point the satellite dish to the History Channel on Thursday nights, 10 p.m. eastern, 9 central, to see a new episode of Appalachian Outlaws. The show premiered on January  9, 2014. Seems like them big city producers don’t get out of their offices much. Youins would think they never heard the word “stereotype.”

The first episode, “Dirty Money” follows the exploits of ‘sengers in the field trying to steal Actaea pachypoda, doll's eyes, white baneberry, baneberryroots from Federal lands or posted private lands better suited to pot farming. In the first six minutes of the show, a generic ‘seng hunter, shows the viewer just how adulteration of herbs occurs in the real world through plant misidentification in the field. He misrepresents a doll’s eye plant in fruit (Actaea pachypoda) as black cohosh (Actaea racemosa). A landowner  shows how to make mini-landmines from a shotgun shell to catch ‘seng poachers tiptoeing down his path to steal his patch of wild ginseng. Tune in next week to see if they can blow a big toe off a poacher’s foot !  The next episode, “Ginseng Fever,” due to air January 16, 2014, will show how ruthless ‘seng hunters and dealers will go to great lengths to protect their interests. Praise the lord and pass the roll of cash!

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng in fruit, American ginseng plant, 西洋参, xi yang shenThis is great reality TV for helping viewers understand what really goes on in the field when harvesting high-value wild herbs.  In a 45 minute episode, the History Channel provides convincing evidence of why the US Fish and Wildlife Service—the Federal Agency charged with assuring sustainability of ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)—should be forced to ban wild ginseng harvest altogether! Current USFWS ginseng resource information plus laws & regulations are found here. This show will be a boon for plant conservationists and an unfortunate boondoggle for the wild ginseng industry. 

If you miss an episode,  just search on-line for the History Channel’s Appalachian Outlaws. Full episodes are available on-demand. Thank you History Channel!