With DNA barcoding and chemical fingerprinting, Canadian scientists are investigating the quality of food and natural health products (NHPs).
That golden honey on your supermarket shelf could be cut with cheap corn syrup. On another shelf, costly coffee might be mixed with inferior beans. In the natural foods section, "pure" gingko products may contain hay or alfalfa.
Nutraceuticals, organic cosmetics and natural dietary supplements are popular and easy to get. With a flourishing supply of raw materials crossing borders around the globe, the agri-food industry is under extraordinary pressure to certify the safety, quality and effectiveness of these ingredients. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the naturally healthy product market is expected to reach US$20.6 billion by 2022, surpassing all the sub-segments in the health and wellness sector. To ensure the authenticity, quality and traceability of the massive influx of crops, food and bioactive natural products, the industry must find innovative analytics.
Since 2003, plant identity testing using DNA "barcoding" has been an excellent tool for helping to authenticate natural ingredients. Developed at the University of Guelph, the method uses genetic markers to identify botanicals and compare them against existing databases—much like barcode readers in supermarkets verify that shelf stock matches what's in the warehouse.
"DNA barcoding cannot distinguish among different parts of a plant such as roots, flowers and leaves," says Fabrice Berrué, Chemical Research Officer/Team Lead at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). "Nor does it detect chemical contaminants, fillers or pharmaceuticals."
Taking plant profiling to the next level, Berrué and his team discovered chemical fingerprinting—or barcoding—for any type of plant anywhere in the world. After connecting with Steven Newmaster, Plant Genomics Expert, DNA barcoding authority and Director of the NHP Research Alliance, University of Guelph, he realized that pooling their talents and resources would lead to a ground-breaking solution. The goal was weeding out the impurities in plant-based products while preserving the nutrition and health benefits. The findings from their studies on the chemical composition of plants would be logged in a massive reference library unlike anything the world had seen.
Thinking outside the Petri dish
Berrué points out that while collecting and analyzing samples, the team realized they needed unique technology to organize the overwhelming amounts of data flowing in. They started with 20 ingredients commonly found in natural products, but that blossomed into tens of thousands. One ingredient could have up to 200 different chemical compounds, each of which is recorded on the chemical barcodes.
"This is the first time that this technology has been explored for creating chemical barcodes," Berrué adds. "And the information in the reference library can be used for more than just health products—it can span all sectors anywhere in the world." These include beverages, maple syrup, olive oil and dried edible seeds.
Berrué adds that the research attracted significant partnerships with industry and regulators. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, for example, asked the NRC to apply the chemical barcoding technique to identify adulteration in honey samples. The coffee industry is using the technology to authenticate roasted beans (arabica vs robusta) and vet their quality and flavour along the supply chain. The NRC's team is also developing new partnerships to evaluate the quality and functionality of protein-based products in Canada such as dried legumes.
Good chemistry from farm to fork
Down the road, Berrué foresees the technique becoming more user-friendly and leaving the lab. "We're investigating the possibility of taking the barcodes to the doors of farmers, processors and manufacturers," he says. "This would provide suitable and highly accurate information on the chemical content of food and natural products from harvest to home." Eventually, the tool could be adapted for consumers, allowing them to connect to the resource library via their phones and access information on the spot related to product quality and traceability.
"What's critical to the success of this project is the chemistry among the stakeholders—academia, industry and government," he adds. "With the NRC's deep and diverse expertise, the research teams' passion and strong industry support, we are building standards that will help the industry develop safe, high-quality products and solidify consumer trust."
According to Newmaster, this project has put Canada in the spotlight on the global stage. A respected speaker at international conferences, he has seen other countries flocking to learn Canadian techniques to ensure products are safe, pure and authentic. "Companies must be held to certain standards, and I feel our work with the NRC has made the world a healthier place."