Occurrence of aflatoxins in milk thistle herbal supplements

Food Addit Contam Part A Chem Anal Control Expo Risk Assess. 2012;29(6):994-9. doi: 10.1080/19440049.2012.664788. Epub 2012 Mar 23.


Milk thistle (MT) dietary supplements are widely consumed due to their possible liver-health-promoting properties. As botanicals they can be contaminated with a variety of fungi and their secondary metabolites, mycotoxins. The aflatoxigenic fungus Aspergillus flavus has been previously isolated from these commodities. Currently, there is no published method for determining aflatoxins (AFs) in MT. Therefore, a liquid chromatography (LC) method validated for aflatoxin analysis in botanicals was evaluated and applied to MT. The method consisted of acetonitrile/water extraction, immunoaffinity column clean-up, LC separation, post-column photochemical reaction derivatisation and fluorescence detection. The average recoveries for AFs added to MT seeds, herb, oil-based liquid extract and alcohol-based liquid extract were 76% or higher. The mean relative standard deviation was <10%. The limit of detection (LOD) was 0.01 µg kg(-1) and the limit of quantification (LOQ) was 0.03 µg kg(-1). The method was used to conduct a small survey. A total of 83 MT samples from the US market were analysed. AFs were detected in 19% of the samples with levels ranging from 0.04 to 2.0 µg kg(-1). Additionally, an aflatoxigenic A. flavus strain from ATTC and an A. parasiticus strain isolated from MT herb powder were found to produce high amounts of aflatoxins (11,200 and 49,100 µg kg(-1), respectively) when cultured in MT seed powder. This is the first study reporting on aflatoxin contamination of MT botanical supplements and identifying methodology for AF analysis of these commodities.

MeSH terms

  • Aflatoxins / analysis*
  • Aspergillus / isolation & purification
  • Aspergillus / metabolism
  • Chromatography, Affinity / methods
  • Dietary Supplements / analysis*
  • Limit of Detection
  • Milk Thistle / chemistry*
  • Oryza / microbiology
  • Spectrometry, Fluorescence


  • Aflatoxins