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UM Center’s Role Critical in Quality and Safety of Supplements, Cosmetics

By Erin Garrett

University of Mississippi

Research scientist Vijayasankar Raman prepares a sample for analysis at the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi. The center leads the nation in research on dietary supplements derived from botanicals. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

In today’s age of online shopping and two-day delivery, consumers have more opportunities than ever to try new health-related products. During COVID-19, for example, many individuals began taking immune-boosting supplements. 

Recognizing this trend, the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy analyzed a sample of these products. The study produced surprising results.

“As a case study, we purchased more than 30 products just to get an idea if they were actually selling what was listed on their product labels,” said Amar Chittiboyina, assistant director and principal scientist at the NCNPR. “We found that around 30% have nothing to do with what they list on their label. 

“The internet gives people a lot of accessibility to dietary supplements like multivitamins, pre-workout products, whey protein and even probiotics. We have seen, however, that this is not always a good thing.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration looks to experts at the NCNPR to assess the quality and safety of products such as these. The research center contains the nation’s only FDA Center of Excellence dedicated to this work.

“We could rapidly pull together the COVID-19 study because we have developed the resources to do so over the past 20 years,” Chittiboyina said. “That includes our research leadership, botanical reference material, state-of-the-art instrumentation and expertise – our people.”

Under the leadership of NCNPR Director Ikhlas Khan, the Center of Excellence resulted from a partnership with the FDA that began in 2001. It is charged with developing analytical methods and reference standards for botanical formulations sold as dietary supplements in the U.S. 

The Center of Excellence aids the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in fulfilling its public health mission.

“At the end of the day, we want to make sure that the science is there to confirm that the product contains what it says on the label for various reasons,” Chittiboyina said. “Most of these products are consistent with their label; however, a good number of samples may not include what they claim to contain.”

To do this, the NCNPR partners with botanical gardens around the globe to source plant materials that they use to validate the authenticity of botanical raw materials found in dietary supplements. Outside of the university’s own Maynard W. Quimby Medicinal Plant Garden, the center has various international collaboration agreements.

Cosmetics research, specifically in regard to botanical-based cosmetic products, is yet another area where the NCNPR is a recognized leader.

“Botanical extracts and single ingredients are increasingly used in cosmetics and other personal care products,” Chittiboyina said. “The center’s resources allowed us to develop a unique lab-based method that is now patented and can be used by manufacturers for the safety assessment of botanical raw materials in various cosmetic products. 

“It is important for manufacturers to substantiate the safety of both ingredients and finished cosmetic products prior to marketing to the public.”

Traditional plants, such as cinnamon, have been used for their health-improving properties for thousands of years, said Ahmed Osman, senior research scientist.

“That’s the basis for the emergence of dietary supplements,” Osman said. “These ingredients that have been used in China or India or the U.S. have proven medicinal benefits. 

“Most of the botanicals are safe; however, we thrive on generating reliable scientific tools for quality assurance – especially with the modern form of supplements.”

Bill Gurley, principal scientist, called the NCNPR the “best kept secret on campus.” He has collaborated with the center for 20 years in various roles.

“We are the premier entity that can provide both research and information regarding dietary supplements,” Gurley said. “Anytime there’s a nationally recognized issue regarding these products, they come to us.”

When selecting products, consumers can stay informed of safety issues by using resources already available to them, Chittiboyina said.

“It’s a daunting task to determine which product to trust because there are so many options out there,” he said. “But consumers can be pragmatic – they can look up the company history and the claims to see what’s realistic and make an educated choice; nowadays, so many resources are at the consumer’s fingertips.”

For more information on partnering with the NCNPR or licensing patented technology, contact Khan at khan@olemiss.edu.

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