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Food Chemistry: Molecular Sciences
Volume 4, 2022, 100070

Sorting out the plants responsible for a contamination with pyrrolizidine alkaloids in spice seeds by means of LC-MS/MS and DNA barcoding: Proof of principle with cumin and anise spice seeds

Marie Willocxa, Iris Van der Beetenb

Department of Chemical and Physical Health Risks, Sciensano, 14 rue Juliette Wytsman, 1050 Brussels, Belgium.


High value commodities such as spices suffer from occasional contaminations of both chemical and biological origin. Consequently, quality control and safety monitoring has become a pressing issue for the spice industry. Two recent independent studies showed that at least one third of the analyzed cumin and green anise spice seeds samples surpassed the by the European Union recently established threshold value for toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) and their corresponding N-oxides (PANOs). These heterocyclic secondary plant metabolites are produced by a large number of different plant families. In those spice seeds, it was found by means of DNA metabarcoding, that predominant contamination was due to the presence of herbal material from the Heliotropium genus (Boraginaceae). Unfortunately, the use of this specific type of DNA-based identification remains controversial for the majority of the official instances and preference is still given to the use of more tangible classical approaches, including microscopy and chemical analysis. However, these methodologies often suffer from inherent drawbacks. Here we demonstrate that at least for spice seeds, a combinatory approach of microscopy, chemical analysis and classical DNA barcoding of the isolated contaminants using the matK and trnH-psbA loci, provides qualitative and quantitative information on the amount of plant material responsible for the contaminations and the extent of the contamination. The generated data also demonstrates that the presence of a very limited number of Heliotropium sp. seeds in a standard commercially available canister is sufficient to surpass the allowed threshold value, illustrating once more the importance of weed control.

Keywords: Pyrrolizidine alkaloids, Seed spices, UHPLC-MS/MS, DNA barcoding, Phytotoxin producing plant species.

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