High school scientists discover "undisclosed ingredients" in tea

Good morning! Are you drinking tea? For god's sake, spit it out! You don't know what's in there! But now, thanks to some teenage scientists, you will. These intrepid researchers found undisclosed ingredients in tea.

For those of us who have always thought that tea tastes like boiled newspapers, this unsettling news won't be too disappointing. Those who look forward to their morning tea won't be as happy about it.

In each living thing there is at least one sequence of DNA that distinguishes one species from any other species in the world. That is the species' DNA barcode. It can be picked out of a jumble of genes, and used to identify what, exactly, is in any hot steaming mix of DNA. Three high school students worked with researchers to find the DNA barcodes in commercial tea. They picked out a hundred and thirty different tea packets, from thirty three different tea companies, extracted the DNA of the ingredients, and sent it off to a commercial DNA testing facility. They then took a look at the results, comparing them to the DNA database of the US National Laboratory of Medicine.

What did they find? A kettle full of deception! Although the teas that were not flavored mostly kept honest, with only about four percent having extra plants mixed in, over a third of the herbal teas had unlisted ingredients. The main additives were bluegrass, which grows on lawns, and white goosefoot, which is a relative of spinach. There was also parsley, and a lot of extra chamomile.

The students have produced a paper about the project, explaining what steps they used, and are hoping to have it published. Although private DNA testing has been available for some time, the barcode project and the DNA database, if both keep growing, could make a new era of quality control and food production possible. (They might also allow people to do things like steal recipes by finding the DNA barcode of all the ingredients.) You know we're living in the future when DNA analysis goes domestic.

Via Scientific American and the Urban Barcode Project.

Image Credit: André Karwath