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The latest herb profile in our series by ABC’s Gayle Engels and Traditional Medicinals’ Josef Brinckmann examines the beautiful passionflower. Passionflower’s name can confuse consumers about its properties, but it is used in numerous herbal sedative formulations and does not actually arouse “passion.” (In the 1980s, some male sexual-enhancement products were marketed with the misleading statement “Now with Passionflower!”) The herb’s name derives from its discovery in the New World by Spanish botanists who were reminded of the Passion of Christ by the striking anatomy of the flower.

Our main feature article covers the Southeast Asian herb kratom, which has become a cause célèbre after the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in August proposed placing two active compounds found in the herb in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. (Schedule I is the most restrictive classification and is reserved for substances with no recognized medical value, such as heroin and LSD.) Kratom contains compounds that bind at opioid receptor sites, thereby producing not only analgesic effects but also the possibility of addiction and dependence, although some consumers use it to help ease opioid withdrawal symptoms. In a rare action, the DEA has responded to the public outcry and pressure from lawmakers, and rescinded its proposed scheduling of the kratom compounds, at least for now.

In his extensive article, HerbalGram Assistant Editor Connor Yearsley reviews the science and history of this controversial plant and includes testimonials from kratom users. Although we seldom cite testimonials in our publications, they serve, in this case, as examples of the attitudes and experiences held by a determined group of patients — the impact of which has helped result in the DEA’s temporary acquiescence.

Our good friend Kerry Bone, an Australian herbalist, author, and researcher, has contributed an overview of recent clinical trials of various cranberry preparations for urinary tract health and other conditions. Cranberry products rank among the top-selling dietary supplements in US retail stores, based in part on consumer awareness of the growing body of evidence for cranberry’s ability to prevent and, in some cases, successfully treat lower urinary tract infections.

Quality control is the theme of various articles in this issue. In our second feature article, our British colleagues Michael Heinrich and Tony Booker present a European perspective on the quality control of herbal medicinal products and discuss the concept of “value chains” for botanical ingredients. With so much interest in and concern about proper identity, contamination, and overall quality of botanical raw materials, the authors contend that vertically integrated value chains result in higher-quality finished products, in addition to many other benefits throughout the supply chain.

In our ongoing series of publications in the ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Program (BAP), John Cardellina and I have co-authored a report on the adulteration of pomegranate products, including juices sold as beverages and extracts sold as dietary supplements. Aside from the dilution of pomegranate juice with undisclosed amounts of lower-cost juices, pomegranate extracts claiming to contain high levels of ellagic acid (EA) have been found to contain externally sourced EA (either synthetic or from tree bark). EA is a naturally occurring antioxidant compound in many plants, and it occurs at a level of about 3% in pomegranate. Its presence in high amounts (40-70%!) may suggest that a product is a high-quality, highly concentrated pomegranate extract. However, these unusually high levels of EA are more likely the result of spiking with non-pomegranate-sourced EA. While there are no apparent health risks associated with this practice, we question the ethics of this form of economic adulteration.

Our Chief Science Officer Stefan Gafner has provided us with a summary of the paper he recently co-authored with medicinal plant experts at the respected National Center for Natural Products Research and the University of British Columbia on the strengths and limitations of DNA barcoding technology with respect to analyzing the identity of botanical materials (e.g., botanical extracts used in dietary supplements). As written in these pages previously, DNA barcoding is not reliable as a sole method of determining the identification of plant extracts, because DNA is often degraded and/or filtered out during the extraction process. This issue became front-page news last year when the New York attorney general (NY AG) misused DNA barcoding as the sole lab method to test finished herbal supplements in leading retail stores.

What’s more, we include a short article about the NY AG’s recent agreement with US supplement giant NBTY, which had produced some of the herbal supplements sold under the Walgreens and Walmart labels that were inappropriately tested by the NY AG and initially alleged as adulterated. The new agreement notes that the products in question did meet all federal requirements for identity and labeling, thereby again demonstrating the inadequacy of the NY AG’s testing methods and overall investigation.

-Mark Blumenthal