Tuesday, February 3, 2015

New York State goes after mislabeled herbal supplements

Big news in the herbal supplement world today: Four large US companies are told to stop selling mislabeled herbal supplements after DNA barcoding analysis of herbal ingredients. More below...

"New York Attorney General Targets Supplements at Major Retailers",
front page news on The New York Times, Feb 3, 2015
(screenshot from NYTimes.com's homepage by BotanicalAccuracy.com)
New York Attorney General has told four major US retail firms that sells herbal supplements to remove these from their shelves or they will face legal action.  This after the AG office tested herbal supplements bought at GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart and found that many of the sold products did not contain what they were sold as, and in some cases, contained undisclosed 'fillers' that could cause severe allergies (such as wheat and beans, etc.).  Here is the story in The New York Times this morning, and the associated article on the scientific findings. Fascinating reading, including the lack of garlic in garlic supplements, and the addition of pine shoots, asparagus, and a multitude of other plant species.
"What's in Those Supplements?", in The New York Times, Feb 3, 2015
(screenshot from NYTimes.com by BotanicalAccuracy.com)

"The authorities said they had run tests on popular store brands of herbal supplements at the retailers — Walmart, Walgreens, Target and GNC — which showed that roughly four out of five of the products contained none of the herbs listed on their labels. In many cases, the authorities said, the supplements contained little more than cheap fillers like rice and house plants, or substances that could be hazardous to people with food allergies. " (source)
It is about time.  Most people are probably unaware that the quality control of herbal supplements are in the hands of the suppliers, and FDA that oversees this market has not had the legal and financial tools to follow up on potentially fraudulent cases. Scientists have been testing herbal supplements, sushi fish, and herbal teas, etc., for quite some time and often found that labels did not match the content when it comes to species.  Often expensive ingredients were missing and replaced with cheaper ones.  But these scientists could not take action against the companies that inadvertently or on purpose changed their product and sold the wrong ingredients.  But now New York State's Attorney General took action. Hopefully this will start to clean up the herbal industry and help the suppliers that use quality-control, efficacy, and consumer safety as their main goals.

Adulteration, the introduction of, or replacement with, ingredients that are not listed on the label, is a serious issue, and can be caused by poor quality control at the source of the plant material (mislabeled or misidentified plants, etc.), and/or by on-purpose replacement of one ingredient with another without telling the consumer (often for economical reasons).  This is of course both fraudulent and dangerous, since many people have allergies and need to know exactly what they add to their diet.  Additionally, selling the wrong thing is a giant consumer fraud.

But, keep in mind, medicinal herbal science is really based on active ingredients, and these are often particular chemical compounds.  The main issues are if these sold herbal supplements contain both the correct species (the source and origin of the chemical compounds) and the active ingredients from those plants.  Not enough research is done on many of the chemicals in plants and their efficacy, but plants in general are powerful natural chemical factories that produce both compounds that can both help your body and kill you.  That is why it is important to know both the origin of the materials in the supplements and the concentration of active ingredients.

The method used in the analysis of these supplements is DNA barcoding.  It only works for supplements that still contain DNA from the original plant material, so for example bark, seeds, leaves, fruits, even in dried form.  It doesn't work after you have extracted only specific chemicals from a plant.  But many supplements are simply dried plant powder in capsules.  DNA barcoding means that you sequence one of several small pieces of the DNA of a plant and compare it to a big database that contains most plant species used in herbal medicine.  This database is growing each day as more and more sequences are added and can be analyzed.  Similarly, if you know the DNA barcode of a species you are looking for, you can test and see if your supplement contains this species. DNA barcoding is not a method without some problems, but used scientifically it is the best method around to identify pulverized or dried plant materials to species.  It is also used to identify unknown woods, meats, caviar, pathogenic fungi, and many other materials and organisms.
The result of this DNA testing by the AG office is not a test of the value and efficacy of herbal medicine in general or for any specific herbal species. The focus here is how much adulteration of ingredients that is going on in the mass-production of herbal supplements, so it is really a test of the self-regulation of the herbal industry. The AG office of New York State is going after commercial fraud, not the scientific value of herbal medicine, which is a very different topic and maybe something for another blogpost.

Some more reading for those of you that want to learn more about this topic:

American Botanical Council's Botanical Adulterants Program

"DNA barcoding detects contamination and substitution in North American herbal products", article by Newmaster et al., in BMC medicine, 2013 (see review and critique from ABC here)

Smithsonian research with DNA barcoding is making seafood substitution easier to catch, Smithsonian Science, 2011

'International Regulation Curbs Illegal Trade of Caviar', press release from American Museum of Natural History showing the decline of illegal caviar after DNA testing was put in place, 2012

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Kissing under the mistletoe, or is it holly?

Kissed someone recently under a mistletoe?  Did you check, maybe it was holly?

The tradition of hanging a little bouquet of mistletoe in the ceiling or door frame and being allowed to kiss whoever happens to stand under it is an old tradition, and a popular subject of movies, comics, postcards, and general holiday fare in both Europe and North America.  We are currently in what The New York Times calles the "hemiparasite season" in their recent article on mistletoes.  No other time of the year provides so much attention to these green mistletoe plants that live on trees, and are often common in Christmas decorations. Another traditional Christmas plant is the holly, a shrub that has spiny, dark-green glossy leaves and (usually) red berries.  The two are often featured together.
Old European Christmas card showing mistletoe (Viscum album) with white berries
and holly (Ilex aquifolium) with red berries.
Mistletoes only grow as half-parasites on trees, usually high up in the canopy, and stay green year round.  They are easiest to spot in the winter. 
Mistletoes (Viscum album) growing on deciduous trees in Switzerland.
Photo © by Jason R Grant, used with permission.  

Mistletoes (Viscum album) plant from Switzerland.
Photo © by Jason R Grant, used with permission.
And here comes holly:
Holly (Ilex aquifolium) from Switzerland.
Photo © by Jason R Grant, used with permission.
Unfortunately, the increasing plant blindness and under-education in botanical subjects we see in media and among the general public worldwide is spreading also into Christmas botany, and a few cases of 'kissing under the holly' have showed up. Some examples:
Sweater "Kiss me under the mistletoe" showing holly, not mistletoe. 
For sale on etsy, see link.  Photo © owltheshirtsyouneed on etsy (fair use).

Greeting card "Get under the mistletoe" showing holly, not mistletoe. 
For sale on etsy, see link.  Photo © TwistedOakGreetings on etsy (fair use).
There are some more examples here, and here, and here.

The two plants are nearly impossible to mistake for each other, unless you think each green thing is a green thing and nothing more.  Here is a simple table for those of you that want to dig into the separating characters. Note that this table are for the most common and traditionally used species of mistletoes and hollies, and that there are other wild species and cultivars with different berry colors.

Mistletoe (Viscum album, etc.)
Holly (Ilex aquifolium, etc.)
Small, flat or slightly twisted and spoon-shaped, with smooth edges
Very spiny edges, thick and glossy green, wavy (hurts when you touch them)
Green, easily seen between the leaves
Usually brownish, usually covered by the spiny leaves
White, nearly translucent
As a partial parasite on trees, has a sucker root into a tree branch
As a shrub or small tree, has its own roots in the ground

The user FireFiriel on DeviantArt has clarified it once and for all with a nice drawing.

(This post was inspired and helped by information from reader IT in Sweden - many thanks!)

Friday, December 5, 2014

White lichens, green mosses, and Swedish Christmas...

It is Swedish culture time!

During the four weeks before Christmas, many Swedes light four advent candles, one at a time for four Sundays before Christmas Day. Traditionally the boxy advent candle holder are filled with a puffy white lichen from the Swedish forests. These days, more and more people switch to less fire prone materials in their candleholders, but the tradition still exist, and the lichens are for sale in regular supermarket and garden centers during the fall.
Swedish advent candles. Image source: Photoakuten.
Unfortunately, one of the old-fashioned names for these lichens are 'white moss' ('vitmossa'), which is also the correct common name for the very common peat mosses in Sweden. The correct name for the most commonly used lichen for advent is 'fönsterlav' (= window lichen) or 'renlav' (=reindeer lichen) in Swedish. This leads to a lot of confusion and errors, but also a lot of education opportunities in many Swedish stores and homes at this time of the year. 

In her fantastic and already classic video, Mirja Hagström explains the difference between a peat moss (Sphagnum) and a lichen (Cladonia, known as cup lichens and reindeer lichens), and what 'vitmossa' really is. It is in Swedish, but with somewhat Swenglish subtitles. Enjoy!

Of course it is not only Swedes that are confused about mosses and lichens, but also Americans.  Remember this older post from this blog? Reindeer moss is a lichen, not a moss

Calling lichens mosses is about as farfetched as calling a sea star an octopus.  The two groups are not at all that closely related.  Mosses is a group on the green land plant tree of life.  Lichens are fungi that live in symbiosis with algae. Of course in the old times lichens were often called 'moss', but to use that name today would just be confusing since we know better and have better, more correct names for lichens.  There is no need to perpetuate or introduce extra confusion in botanical words.

Some stores have started to use both names (vitmossa/fönsterlav) on their packaging, but then they still accept the name vitmossa for this lichen.  It would have been better to call it 'fönsterlav (formely known as vitmossa)'.  Some stores hav also started to sell any green moss under the name 'grönmossa' (=green moss), which is about as specific as saying 'red flowers' on a package.  All mosses are green when alive, even 'white moss', i.e. peatmosses, even if they can also have red, brown and yellow tones.

For examples of Swedish advent products with both mosses and lichens, see: Kransmakaren.se


This blog just passed 100,000 page views yesterday. Thanks everybody for visiting!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Why does the medicinal plant Astragalus membranaceus need to change its name?

One of the commonly used herbal medicines in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and other herbal pharmacopeias is the Chinese milk vetch, also called Radix Astragali, huang qi in Mandarin, or 黄芪 or 黄耆 in Chinese characters). Be aware though, that the name 'milk vetch' is used for many different species around the world, and some of them toxic. In the United States, the root of huang qi is widely sold as a dietary supplement ingredient, with the name astragalus established as the “standard common name” according to the rules by the US Food and Drug Administration, and therefore required on labels of such products sold in the USA. 
Huang qi is a species that has long been known scientifically as Astragalus membranaceus, a species that was described by Alexander von Bunge in 1868. Von Bunge was a German botanist that took part in several expeditions to Siberia, Mongolia, the Altai Mountains, and Central Asia's steppes in the mid-1800s.
Photo of astragalus / huang qi roots.
©  Steven Foster (link)
Unfortunately for von Bunge and for us today, it turns out that Bunge was not first with the name Astragalus membranaceus. Over 220 years ago, in 1794, Conrad Moench wrote a book on plants cultivated in the botanical garden of Marburg, Germany. In his book Moench renamed an Egyptian milk vetch species that Carl Linnaeus had earlier described as Astragalus trimestris, to Astragalus membranaceus.

All naming of plants have to follow the laws of scientific botanical nomenclature, which are called the International Code of Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi, and Plants, often shortened to ICN or 'The Code'. According to the rules of the Code you can't rename already described species on a whim, like Moench did. So Moench's name Astragalus membranaceus was properly described, but superfluous, i.e., it is an extra name that should not be used.
Photo of astragalus / huang qi.
©  Steven Foster (link)
Another rule in the Code is that when you describe a new species, you can't use a genus and species name combination that has already been used for another species. If you do, you create something called a homonym, a name that in reality applies to two different species. When you have two homonyms, the oldest name that was validly published according to all rules of the Code has priority (it wins!) and the younger name has to be put in disuse and replaced with another species name for the younger species. The younger homonym name then becomes an illegitimate name, which should not be used.

But since Moench's name was validly described, the name for the species von Bunge discovered in Asia could not be the same as Moench's species name (Astragalus membranaceus). It is too bad this situation was not realized until relatively recently. By now, there has been 160 years of published books and reports using von Bunge's species name, Astragalus membranaceus, for the Asian medicinal milk vetch. But, the nomenclature rules have to be followed or the naming of millions of species on Earth would turn into a chaotic mess. There is a possibility to get exceptions from the rules, but such exceptions have to be formally proposed and then voted on by a large botanical community of scientists that only meet at the International Botanical Congress every 4 years.
The five taxonomic groups relevant for 'huang qi' nomenclature.
Geographic information is approximate.
© BotanicalAccuracy.com.
So, von Bunge's species from Asia, the medicinal Chinese milk vetch, needed a new name. Botanists went through the literature to see if other earlier botanists had maybe described other new species based on plants that were now considered to be part of Bunge's species. And yes indeed, there were several names available for plants that sometimes had been considered separate from Astragalus membranaceus, but now were included, so the oldest of those species names can be used.

The problem was that the botanists could not agree on how to divide up the plants into different species. In taxonomy we often talk about 'lumpers' (botanists that like to have large, widespread and morphologically variable species) and 'splitters' (who like many small species, often from small geographical areas and more uniform characteristics).

The current world expert on this group of milk vetches is Dr. Xiangyun Zhu from Institute of Botany in Beijing in China, who has graciously helped us understand this complicated issue. After detailed morphological analyses, Dr. Zhu showed that the species Astragalus penduliflorus from Europe, is actually the same species as the medicinal plant known as Astragalus membranaceus in East Asia (see his paper in Nordic Journal of Botany 23: 283-294 (2005). When biologists learn more about species, sometimes their names change to reflect our new understanding of their relationships and properties. It might be inconvenient at times, but is part of scientific progress.

So, the current treatment is that several milk vetch species are being merged into one single species. Several names are available. Astragalus penduliflorus was described first, by the famous naturalist Lamarck in 1779. Therefore it is clear that Astragalus penduliflorus then is the oldest name and the one that now should be used for huang qi. Not all botanists might agree with this, but this is the best and most science-based naming so far.

The current species names and distribution of 'huang qi' and other varieties in its species (note all are included).
Geographic information is approximate.
© BotanicalAccuracy.com.
Within a species you can also have subspecies, varieties, and forms. Botanists frequently discuss such fine-tuning of taxonomy and might have arguments over it. Sometimes the decisions can have economic and ethnobotanical implications. For example, if only one subspecies contains an active compound, then it is important that you use the right subspecies and not just any plant from the whole species.
In the case of the medicinal Chinese milk vetch, the species previously known as Astragalus membranaceus now has the new taxonomic name Astragalus penduliflorus ssp. mongholicus var. dahuricus.

This means that huang qi belongs to the subspecies mongholicus, and within that subspecies to the variety dahuricus. So only the species name "Astragalus penduliflorus" will not guarantee you to get the traditionally used huang qi. Make sure that the label (or content) is more specific than just the species name since this is such a geographically widespread and morphologically (and most likely chemically as well) variable species. 

Another name that has been used for the Asian Astragalus membranaceus is Astragalus propinquus.  It is the name that is currently listed in The Plant List from Kew Gardens, which is based on the LegumeWeb database.  Unfortunately, those have outdated information and need to be updated.  Especially for legumes (Fabaceae), be aware that The Plant List is not properly updated (yet).
Astragalus propinquus is now also a synonym of Astragalus penduliflorus ssp. mongholicus var. dahuricus.

Astragalus (huang qi) herbal supplement sold by GNC in the US.  Source: GNC.

In Chinese medicine, the criteria for appropriate medicinal plant material might be even more strict, such as that only one particular region would be the most wanted producer of a medicinal plant. Such generally accepted regions or places for high-quality material of each medicinal plant are called ‘Daodi’ in Chinese (see review article on this by Zhao et al., 2012, cited below). The plant materials produced in a 'Daodi' place is generally acknowledged to be the most bioactive and of the best quality. So the price of a ‘Daodi’ medicinal plant is usually higher than the same plant species produced in other areas. For huang qi, the ‘Daodi’ plants are the ones produced in the Shanxi Province of China. The materials from other non-‘Daodi’ provinces can be sold, but would not be as accepted or wanted by the customers.

Cultivation of astragalus / huang qi.
©  Steven Foster (link)
What I have described above is called botanical nomenclature, the naming of plants and the rules that guide their scientific names. These rules are active worldwide in botany and mycology and know no political borders. Slightly separate from nomenclature is the research on circumscribing a species. That means that you do research on which individuals belong to one species and not another, or if a species might be one, two, or three separate species. If you lump two species together and consider them one single species, then you also have to follow the rule of priority. The oldest species name in your lumped species will become the species name for the new, larger species, and the younger name will become a synonym, a name that shouldn't be used.

The current scientific name for Astragalus membranaceus
(as described by Bunge and native to Asia) is:

Astragalus penduliflorus ssp. mongholicus var. dahuricus
Astragalus penduliflorus var. dahuricus
(two name options for the same variety)  

[Blogpost written by Lena Struwe and Shen-hao (Shawn) Yao]

Many thanks to Xiangyun Zhu and Steven Foster, who both provided excellent taxonomic and ethnobotanical insights and photographs for this article.

References and more suggested reading:

Foster, S.  1998. Astragalus: A Superior Herb. Herbs for Health, Sep/Oct 1998: 40-41.

Foster, S.
2004. The Secret Garden: Important Chinese Herbs in American Horticulture: A Photo Essay. HerbalGram. 2004; 64:44-51 (link)

Zhao,  Z., P. Guo, & E. Brand. 2012. The formation of daodi medicinal materials. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 140: 476-481.

Zhu, X-Y. 2005. Revision of the Astragalus penduliflorus complex (Leguminosae - Papilionoidae). Nord. J. Bot. 23: 283-294.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Are you having dinosaur for Thanksgiving? I hope so.

This is a little detour out of the botanical world into the zoological realm.

In three days Thanksgiving feasts are served all over USA, and on most tables there will be a turkey.   

I am going to take this opportunity to tell you all that you are about to eat a dinosaur, and that it is OK.

See, not all dinosaurs died out when the asteroid hit the Earth and the climate changed about 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous era.  One group of the dinosaurs, who already had evolved flight and feathers, evolved, speciated, and live on today as a very successful animal group, THE BIRDS.

Because of this fact, and this evolutionary history, all birds are dinosaurs.  Not all dinosaurs are birds, though.  Birds are only one of many branches on the dinosaur tree of life.
Birds and Dinosaurs
The fantastic xkcd comic maker explains how birds are dinosaurs.
(Creative Commons license, link)

Despite this now well-supported fact in biology, the idea that dinosaurs are extinct unfortunately persist in our society.  So please do your job as a accurate fact lover and take the turkey by the legs and proclaim at the Thanksgiving table to your relatives: "Let's have some dinosaur, shall we?". If nothing else, that should start some interesting family conversations.

Roasted dinosaur, aka turkey.
Creative Commons license, BotanicalAccuracy.com

Here are some more resources on this if you want to read more:
Are Birds Really Dinosaurs?
Origin of birds (Wikipedia)
Birds, the late evolution of Dinosaurs