The quality of a botanical product is dependent on the quality of its raw plant materials. The safety and efficacy of botanical products are directly related to the quality and authenticity of their raw materials. In the current industrialized world, the market for botanical products is driven by high-quality raw ingredients. There is a growing demand among consumers for clean, safe and authentic natural products and their formulations. In order to keep up with this new trend, as well as to adhere to the evolving stringent regulations, natural product manufacturing companies across the world are intensifying their efforts on establishing and augmenting quality of the raw materials.
Quality control of botanical raw materials intends to ensure the correct identity, purity and desired chemical composition, using a combination of both physical and chemical methods. At NCNPR, expertise and facilities are available to establish and/or verify the quality of raw materials using various methods. There are several tests and techniques available for authentication but using the right methods is crucial for proper authentication. Also, there is no one-size-fits-all technique available to authenticate all types of samples hence multiple tests may be necessary for correct identification and authentication. Therefore, at NCNPR we follow a synergistic approach using the following authentication methods depending on the type and nature of the raw material:
Raw Material Identification and Authentication
A. Botanical Identification and Authentication
Correct identification of the raw material is the first and foremost step in the quality control. Medicinal and aromatic plants are often misidentified. A wrongly identified botanical ingredient can render the product not only ineffective but also unsafe for human consumption. Therefore, the raw plant materials should be botanically identified and authenticated by qualified personnel.
Macroscopic and microscopic methods are the traditional and time-tested methods for botanical authentication. In these methods, the plants are taxonomically identified by their morphological features. Herbarium voucher specimens are prepared using standard procedures and the specimens are assigned with correct accepted Latin name following International botanical nomenclature rules. Plant specimens with adequate details (leaves, flowers and/or fruits) are necessary for morphological identification. When the raw material is ground or lacking the morphological features, then microscopic methods can be used for authentication. Several anatomical and microscopic features, such as stomata, trichomes, calcium oxalate crystals and various tissue types, are used in the authentication of ground plant materials. These methods are crucial in the quality control of raw ingredients and are employed to assess contaminations and to detect adulterations with foreign matter. Macro/microscopic methods, however, are not suitable for the authentication of extracts or highly processed materials.
In order to establish accurate botanical identification and authentication, NCNPR possesses the following expertise and facilities:
- Qualified botanist with expertise in plant taxonomy, morphology, anatomy and microscopy
- Medicinal plant garden
- Repository of botanicals (current housing more than 40,000 authentic and commercial samples belonging to over 6000 species)
- Microscopy lab (with fluorescence, polarizing, stereo and scanning electron microscopes)
B. Authentication by Molecular Methods
When plant material lacks morphological characters (e.g. ground material or plant extract) identification based on DNA can be applied. The novel technique of identifying biological specimens using short DNA sequences from either nuclear or organelle genomes is called ‘DNA barcoding’. Unlike plant metabolites, DNA is independent of the geographical location and seasonal variations and can be found in most of the plant’s body parts. Only minute amounts of plant tissue or its DNA are necessary to perform the DNA barcoding and plant identification. The DNA barcodes of a sample is compared with a DNA database and a 99-100% match can be used to confirm/identify the species. A disadvantage of this method is though, that it is not helpful to distinguish between the various plant tissues, such as root vs. leaf.
C. Authentication by Chemical Methods
Cultivation and Propagation of Medicinal Plants
Propagation of Medicinal Plants
The NCNPR has a vision for sustainable agriculture of valuable medicinally important plants. The vision is based on important parameters such as screening of elite varieties of plants based on their bioactive compounds, their conservation using biotechnological tools such as tissue culture and their mass multiplication using vegetative propagation and micropropagation techniques. All these activities are done in compliance with Good Agricultural Practices and Food and Drug Administration Guidelines.
Medicinal Plants as Alternative Crops Program
The goal of the Medicinal Plants as Alternative Crops Program is to conduct research that can be used to develop medicinal plants as high value alternative crops for U.S. farmers. Research focuses on identifying medicinal plants that are viable economic opportunities for farmers and on correlating cultivation, harvesting and agronomic conditions to the plant’s ability to produce the desired chemical and pharmacological profile. Other research activities include determining the optimal post-harvest processes to maximize desirable properties, crop improvement studies, and translational research and marketing research. Current projects include economical production of medicinally important plants, their agronomic potential in Mississippi, value-added development of botanicals through harvest, post-harvest and storage practices, and market research to quantify commercial potential.