Lehman Professor Says Botanical Supplements Industry Must “Clean Up Its Act”

Professor Ed Kennelly and Students in Greenhouse

Dr. Edward Kennelly is a Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, School of Natural and Social Sciences at Lehman College. He is pictured in the Lehman College greenhouse with some of his students from left: Harini Anandhi Senthilkumar and Adam Negrin, both doctoral students in plant sciences and Shi-Biao Wu, a post doctoral student. Here they sample and take notes on a cacao plant. Kennelly has received a Fulbright Fellowship. © Audrey C. Tiernan

A recent investigation by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman concluded that many of the herbal supplements sold by retailers Wal-Mart, Target and Walgreens contained fake ingredients. The supplements were subjected to DNA testing and the results showed that only 21 percent of the products had DNA from the plants or herbs advertised on the label. Many were contaminated with ingredients like rice, wheat, wild carrots, asparagus and allium. The products were ordered to be removed from the retail shelves.

The attorney general is also taking on four product manufacturers, demanding they provide ingredient information about every herbal supplement they sell in New York State.

The results of the attorney general’s investigation didn’t surprise Lehman Professor Edward Kennelly (Biological Sciences). “This is a public health and consumer fraud issue that deserves further investigation,” said Professor Kennelly. “While there are many high quality products on the market, there are clearly a significant number that are adulterated, and this industry needs to clean up its act.”

Professor Kennelly has rigorously tested a botanical called black cohosh, an herb often used for medicinal purposes, including treating symptoms of menopause and premenstrual syndrome. “The Attorney General’s office has identified an issue that is similar to a trend we have seen with one botanical called black cohosh,” said Professor Kennelly. “ I have written several publications about black cohosh that shows approximately 1/3 of the products collected (in two different market surveys in the New York City area) did not actually contain black cohosh.”

In January, Professor Kennelly published a chapter about his experience with black cohosh in a book called “Botanicals: Methods and Techniques for Quality & Authenticity,” edited by Kurt Reynertson, who received his Ph.D. in Biology from The Graduate Center, City University of New York, and Khalid Mahmood. The book is a comprehensive look at the complexity of methods used to evaluate botanical authenticity. The chapter was written with Tiffany Chan, a Macaulay Honors College student who received her MS from Lehman in Biology, and ShiBiao Wu, a post doctoral student at Lehman.

Some industry groups and independent experts called the attorney general’s DNA testing inadequate for analyzing botanical products. They claim that other lab tests are needed to determine authenticity of products that have gone through processing from “leaf to tablet.” They insist that DNA alone isn’t enough to identify “chemically complex herbal extracts.”

Professor Kennelly agrees that alternative testing methods or ones in addition to DNA fingerprinting are often necessary. “The bottom line is that there is no single method that is appropriate for all botanicals sold on the market today,” he said. “DNA fingerprinting is a tremendously powerful procedure, as long as the product has DNA that has not been compromised due to the processing/extraction of the botanical in question.”

He also said that he uses another testing method called LC-MS, (liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry) a sophisticated analytical chemistry technique that can be very time consuming to use.

Professor Kennelly gave a research talk at  Hong Kong Baptist University on March 3 discussing “Adulterated Botanical Supplements in the United States Market” and will appear on March 10 at Chinese University of Hong Kong, to discuss the same topic.