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In the USA, the State of New York has started requiring manufacturers of herb products to verify that their products contain the herbs they claim by testing for their DNA. But there are serious reasons the law reflects a poor understanding of science.

"To herb is human," says Steve Mister, founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Responsible Nutrition, harking back to the adage that to err is human. Most if not all experts who take herbal medicine seriously and promote its use ethically are opposed the new law in the state of New York that requires herb products to pass DNA testing.

What could possibly be wrong with testing for DNA?

To the Attorney General of New York in 2014, DNA "barcode" testing seemed like the answer for numerous complaints that herb products didn't contain the herbs they claimed. Actually, the attorney general didn't discover this problem. As long ago as 1996, the American Botanical Council and similar groups were testing male potency formulas for yohimbe, and finding most did not contain the expensive herb. The American Botanical Council also ran a series of tests for the actual herb ginseng in ginseng tonics and concluded the even-more expensive Asian medicinal was often left out.

However, with rise of testing organizations like Consumer Labs and watchdog groups like Consumer Reports, fewer and fewer fake herbal preparations survive in the North American market. The Attorney General was not satisfied.

The State of New York ordered DNA testing of herbal products from four national retailers. Half of them contained the herbs claimed on the label. Half did not. "Fraud!" the Attorney General exclaimed. But really no fraud was involved. Why?

  • The products that passed DNA testing were all whole herbs.
  • The products that did not pass DNA testing were herb extracts.

What's an herb extract? Through hundreds of thousands of scientific tests, the medical profession (yes, medical profession) has identified thousands of naturally occurring compounds that have specific pharmacological effects in the human body. Most of these compounds are not as comprehensively tested as, say, the latest vaccine or cancer therapy, but they are verified as nontoxic by testing on bacteria, first, and then laboratory animals, although more and more companies are moving humanely away from animal testing, or more often by having been used safely for hundreds of years. In the United States, if an herb was known to be safe before 1994, it's assumed to still be safe now. Long before there was DNA testing, herb manufacturers learned how to identify plant parts under a microscope to make sure they were using the right herb and only the right herb. Long experience teaches what to look for to make sure a batch of raw herb is pure.

An herb may be more effective, however, if certain chemical compounds in it are extracted and concentrated. There are some very straightforward ways this is done.

  • The most ancient method of making an herb concentrate was to brew it as a tea and then to dehydrate the liquid into granules. This gives you more of the important chemicals in a smaller dose.
  • A nineteenth-century approach was to remove water-soluble compounds with hot water or alcohol, and then also to let the liquid evaporate, or to remove fat-soluble compounds with solvents like toluene, and bubble the toxic toluene out of the mixture. This is still done, but for obvious reasons chemical solvents are not popular in herbal medicine.
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