Herbs & Botanicals: Trends, Safety, and Traceability

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The Herbs and Botanicals market is growing, and speedily: “Herbal supplement sales in the United States experienced record growth in 2018, increasing by an estimated 9.4% from 2017,” says Brian Appell, Marketing Manager at OmniActive Health Technologies, citing the American Botanical Council’s 2018 Herb Market Report. “Consumers spent almost $9 billion on herbal supplements across all market channels in 2018—an increase of roughly $757 million in sales from the previous year—marking the strongest U.S. sales growth of herbal supplements since 1998.” This aligns with the trends WholeFoods has been reporting on: Turmeric, CBD, and ashwagandha are some of the buzziest ingredients of 2019.

Guide to helping customers choose

Given the variety of supplements out there, the range of ingredients, and the fact that even a single brand might sell multiple supplements within the same category, WholeFoods asked the experts how you can help your customers choose their personal best options. Stacey Gillespie, Brand Director at Gaia Herbs, created a helpful guide: “First, ask: ‘What is your intention for the herbal supplement(s)?’ If a customer says they are looking for something ‘to support brain health,’ we would recommend that the retailer further identify the specific health concern the customer is trying to address. The retailer should ask something such as: ‘Are you looking for long-term support for cognitive health or short-term help for memory and focus?’ Asking more specific health concern questions like these will help the retailer determine the appropriate products to recommend.” She notes that Gaia Herbs’ Mind Spring Mushrooms & Herbs powder would be appropriate for long-term cognitive health, while Nootropic Focus contains herbs traditionally used to support memory, focus, and concentration.

Other questions, Gillespie says, can explore delivery format, allergies, and use of other medications. “Gaia Herbs offers herbal supplements in a variety of delivery formats to fit different lifestyles. If a person travels regularly, it may be more convenient for them to travel with capsules or liquid tinctures. If a person prefers an alternative format to capsules, they may do better with a powder blend which can easily be added to a multitude of beverages.” Any product recommended should be free of the customer’s allergens, of course. And adding to her last point regarding medications, Gillespie says: “If the customer is taking other medications, we would recommend that the retailer tell the customer to consult their physician before beginning any new herbal regimen to make sure they will work well in conjunction with their current treatments.” It’s important that a physician be consulted, she notes, in order to rule out any potential drug interactions or contraindications.

And finally: Ask the customer if they have any other questions. “This may seem like an obvious question,” Gillespie says, “but it is an opportunity for the retailer to answer any additional concerns from the customer and/or to direct them to the company that produces the herbal supplement, as the company should be able to answer their questions in more detail. For instance, Gaia Herbs employs a team of product specialists, containing experienced and knowledgeable herbalists, to handle product specific questions from customers.”

Update on adulteration and quality control

Adulteration is a problem in the botanicals industry; given that resources are limited and can be decimated by a poor harvest, there’s plenty of incentive for bad actors. The American Botanical Council (ABC) is on the lookout—they author Botanical Adulterants Prevention Bulletins (BAPB) and Lab Guidance Documents, in which they describe the most common ways a particular herb is adulterated, and the tests necessary to ensure an herb is pure. “Adulteration can occur with any botanical ingredient,” say Mark Blumenthal, Executive Director of ABC, and Stefan Gafner, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer. “However, ingredients that are relatively expensive, those that have supply shortages due to poor harvest, dwindling resources, and/or weather disruptions, and those which have a steep rise in popularity—these have a higher risk of being adulterated. Looking at the latter category, this would include cannabidiol, goji (Lycium spp.) berry, elderberry (Sambucus nigra) fruit, and ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) root based on the latest HerbalGram Herb Market Report just published in HerbalGram #123.” Ashwagandha has already been the subject of a BAPB, which, like all BAPBs, can be found on abc.herbalgram.org for free.

In light of this, Blumenthal and Gafner stress the importance of an educated staff member who can take control of the process of vetting and buying from a manufacturer. “It is important that retailers have someone on staff with a good understanding of botanical dietary supplement manufacturing quality control. Questions to herbal product manufacturers should involve a complete assessment of quality control processes in place, such as details on ingredient specifications for identity, purity, strength, and composition, and how these specifications are verified. Usually, the expertise of the personnel, test methods in place, and analytical equipment at hand can give a good idea about product quality.”

A review of FDA inspections outcomes can also provide helpful information about a manufacturer’s quality control system, Blumenthal and Gafner continue. “Retailers should also ask the manufacturers if they are actual Underwriters of the ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program and also if they utilize the peer-reviewed documents in their quality control programs to help ensure the identity of the raw materials, extracts, and/or essential oils that they are purchasing for use in their products.”

To learn more about herbs and botanicals, Blumenthal and Gafner recommend Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals by Wolfgang Blaschek (although they note that the latest German edition has not yet been translated into English) and, of course, HerbalGram. ABC’s website also presents pertinent information on hundreds of herbs, including traditional uses, growing locations, and scientific evidence backing efficacy.

There are plenty of companies fighting against adulteration—and ways to tell who’s putting in the effort. Randy Kreienbrink, VP of Marketing at BI Nutraceuticals, notes that “Consumers are demanding quality, identity proven, transparent, sustainable herbal supplements. All botanicals stocked should have some third-party certification.”

Some companies are going the extra mile. Gaia Herbs, for instance, created the MeetYourHerbs traceability platform.“Customers can enter the ID number located on the back of any Gaia Herbs product to learn where each ingredient comes from, how the herbs were grown, harvested, and extracted, and the tests the product underwent to validate its purity, integrity, and potency,” says Gillespie. “We believe that everyone should know the life story of the herbs that they take.”

A. Vogel spends nearly $4 million a year on clinical research, according to Rosemarie Webb, Content Development Manager. And once an herb is harvested, it enters quality control: “Liquid products undergo 100 quality control checks, and tablets, an additional 90 checks, ensuring A. Vogel herbal products are safe, pure, and effective.”

Nuherbs notes that ‘quality’ doesn’t just refer to the identity of the plant—it also refers to the potency. Wilson Lau, VP of Nuherbs, says: “We practice Geo-authenticity, the principle that potency and authenticity of herbs harvested from where they naturally grow will be superior to plants cultivated in non-native locations. The temperature, soil, humidity, terrain, and micro-climate all contribute to the plant’s potency. We determine the right area in which it should be grown for the activity we seek, and confirm it is collected at the correct time, using the correct techniques for the herb’s activity and the plant’s welfare. By getting our herbs directly from our long-term partners, we know precisely where they were grown and how they were harvested.” Lau adds that they work closely with organizations like FairWild, which works to prevent overharvesting.

These demands aren’t without their challenges on the supplier end. Leisha Jenkins, Marketing Associate for Verdure Sciences, notes that “safety is paramount”—but that “the implementation of additional programs—traceability initiatives, evolving regulatory requirements—comes at increased cost that some do not wish to pay, but these programs provide consumers with the added benefits they want and expect to see.” She says cost sharing is required, so farmers get rewarded for adhering to these additional programs. A particular challenge is regulatory: “There’s variance from country to country, along with a lack of detail or guidance from governing bodies.” Jenkins adds that the increasingly stringent requirements, however much they may vary between countries, are useful: “We do believe the changes and programs are key to the growth and longevity of the industry.”

One way to ensure that the herbs you sell are scientifically-backed and quality-checked, generally speaking, is to stock products that use branded ingredients. Shaheen Majeed, President Worldwide of Sabinsa, tells WholeFoods: “Most branded ingredients are supported by Intellectual Property, such as research and patents, so safety and efficacy have been established. Safety in particular is verified if they have GRAS status. Branded ingredients support transparency, because consumers can easily search for information, such as published studies, to check for the dosage amount that provided benefits, and any reported side effects. If an ingredient supplier follows practices that go above and beyond the norm, it gives an added value—for example, Sabinsa has an extensive cultivation program for raw ingredients with a significant fair trade component, which will appeal to ‘values’ consumers.” He notes that manufacturers won’t have unwelcome surprises with branded ingredients—suppliers have a vested interest in the products being accurately identified and having the advertised potency.

Another potential mark of quality: vertical integration. Ixoreal Biomed’s CEO Kartikeya Baldwa says this makes a big difference in their KSM-66 ashwagandha: “From field to finish, you control your product. We have over 1600 acres of ashwagandha farms under organic certification, and we extract the root according to the most rigorous possible green manufacturing standards. By controlling every step of the supply chain and all aspects of processing and manufacturing, we ensure the greatest possible quality and knowledge of our product.”

Not All Extracts are Created Equal

Extracts can vary in potency, purity, and quality—even from batch to batch. Quality suppliers take care to ensure all three, and to standardize them. One example: OmniActive takes care to ensure CurcuWIN has the same curcuminoid profile as turmeric. “We have processes and testing procedures in place to further ensure that the same profile of curcuminoids are preserved through our process of improving dispersion and bioavailability,” says Brian Appell. But that isn’t where it starts: “It begins with our extraction process, which preserves the natural profile of curcuminoids.”

OmniActive isn’t the only company taking care to ensure standardization. Rosemarie Webb, at A. Vogel, tells WholeFoods that the company’s processing procedures include “holistic standardization.” What this means: “Instead of standardizing to a single constituent, A. Vogel products are produced to ensure a full spectrum of constituents from the whole plant. The organic material is harvested at optimal potency and processed within 24 hours, resulting in products that contain up to three times more active constituents than those found in dried plants, and then, many times, an entire year’s harvest is blended into a single annual batch, providing consistency of active ingredients, batch-to-batch, year-to-year.”

At Herbalist & Alchemist, David Winston says, they use spagyric processing. “Many herbs contain minerals that are a very important part of their activity, but that don’t make it into a traditional extract because water and especially hydro-alcoholic solutions are very poor methods for extracting minerals.” How does spagyric processing solve this problem? “After the herb is macerated in the extracting liquid, the used herb is removed and then burned, reducing it to white ash. This white ash is pure minerals and almost all of it is soluble when it is added back into the tincture. I believe that produces the finest full-spectrum extract available.” Beyond that, Winston’s company has done scientific research to “develop the most effective methods for extracting the unique constituents of each specific herb. This includes determining the correct percentages of organic alcohol, distilled water, and if needed, glycerin or vinegar for each. We also use traditional processes such as water decoction, hydrolyzation, wilting or acidification for certain herbs to enhance their extraction.”

Nuherbs offers, among other things, teapills: “In my experience, the teapills are slightly concentrated,” says Lau, “so you take less than if you were just taking herbal powder. More importantly, we believe that by extracting all the herbs together rather than separately, we can create synergies between the herbs that you would not necessarily get if you were just mixing the herbs together and putting them in a pill. Think about what happens when you cook things together versus if you just threw them in a dish: The ingredients could be the same, but the results very different.”

What’s selling

Experts are finding that, while a few herbs are sought in their own right, consumers are leaning towards function-focused blends. The herbs that consumers are looking for—whether as part of a blend or as a stand-alone product—are clinically studied. “Our best-selling herbs are Longvida, Pomella, Bacognize, WokVel, and Restoridyn,” lists Jenkins. “Each herb is built on science and quality from beginning to end. Our emphasis on high quality, traceability, and sustainability creates higher demand; people want to know efforts and initiatives are in place to provide quality.”

Even single herbs are better off with a function-focused title. Take Farlong Pharmaceuticals, for example, which sells notoginseng as a stand-alone herb and as Heart Advanced Support. Their website notes that Heart Advanced Support has been the company’s top-selling herb supplement since 1998.

6 of the herbs our experts say are in demand right now:

Ashwagandha, which is “commonly known as Indian ginseng due to its stimulating effects,” according to John Nowicki, N.D., Medical Researcher/Writer with Ayush Herbs. It’s a particularly popular adaptogen: “It has long been celebrated for its ability to encourage quality energy throughout the day and sound sleep at night,” says Dr. Nowicki. “It has been used to calm the mind, relieve weakness and nervous exhaustion, build energy, promote healthy sleep, and improve overall health and longevity.” He cites a study in Advances in Bioscience and Biotechnology, in which ashwagandha root extract was shown to enhance telomerase activity by 45%. This suggests that ashwagandha should be evaluated as a potential anti-aging herb. Telomerase is an enzyme that can repair and maintain the length of telomeres, endcaps of chromosomes that
protect the DNA, guarding against the aging process.

That may just be the beginning. Baldwa notes that “Ashwagandha is a complex plant with hundreds of compounds.” Even now, he says, “We have not fully investigated everything there is to know about this plant. Our scientists continue to work on detecting new compounds, and other aspects of better understanding of the plant, its uses, and mechanism of action.”

Bacopa, which, Dr. Nowicki says, “has been used in Ayurvedic tradition to support the nervous system, aid memory and cognition, modulate reactions to occasional stress, and may help maintain neurotransmitter levels.”

Elderberry, which is being bolstered by a variety of factors. First, people are becoming more aware of the need to maintain their immune system year-round, not just during cold-and-flu season, and they’re becoming aware of elderberry: In a press release from July, Devon Bennett, CEO of INS Farms, said “Elderberry’s time in the marketplace is here…Three years ago, maybe 20% of the people we met at trade shows were familiar with elderberry as a consumable product. However, in 2019… most people have at least heard of elderberry before” (2). Second, INS Farms announced in July that black elderberry cultivated in the U.S. is equal in quality to European elderberry, and that they had standardized their polyphenol fingerprint (3).

Also on the elderberry front, Artemis International debuted their European Black Elderberry Extract at SupplySide West this year, noting that the company uses a solvent-free water extraction process that retains the whole fruit matrix, taste, and aroma profile.

Full-Spectrum Hemp, which is dominating the botanical market, Kreienbrink notes. “Demand is driven by desire for products that contain phytochemicals to combat today’s health issues.” One report from July predicted that the CBD market would grow 706% through 2023, which would put it at $23.7 billion at the end of that time period. New Frontier Data released a report near the end of September: Hemp cultivation acreage increased 328% in 2019, bringing it to nearly half a million acres. And while some of that is for fiber production, at least 70% was intended for extract production. The hemp extract industry is already big, and it’s going to keep growing.

Ginger, which is “currently benefiting from research in newer health categories,” Appell says. “While it has been traditionally known for benefits in the Digestive Health and Nausea category, research and developing science in newer areas like Pain and Inflammation is also driving consumer interest and growth of the product. A new HerbalGram article published by ABC confirms that most modern clinical research focuses on ginger’s effects on nausea related to pregnancy or chemotherapy, but it adds that there is also clinical interest in other gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome and non-GI issues such as menstrual pain.”

Turmeric (curcumin), which is “one of the most popular and well identified ingredients in the nutrition space,” Appell says. “For five consecutive years, turmeric has continued to be the top-selling herbal supplement in the natural products channel with sales just over $50 million in 2017, up 12.2% from the previous year. 20% of U.S. supplement users over 55 are using turmeric and curcumin supplements, according to the 2018 CRN
Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements. Extensive research on turmeric’s active constituent, curcumin, has given the ingredient credibility among modern researchers and a wider mainstream audience as more curcumin supplements hit the market.”

TCM and the Trade War

Traditional Chinese Medicine is herb- and botanical-based—and therefore heavily impacted by the trade war with China. “The tariffs are impacting our business as a whole,” says Wilson Lau, VP of Nuherbs, which imports and distributes both finished products and ingredients from China. “The impact is bigger on the ingredient side, where we specialize in bulk herbs and powders, which is currently tariffed at 25% and will be going up to 30% if there are no policy changes. The additional cost is hard for everyone; it’s not hitting only our bottom line, but our customers’ as well. Further, it’s impacting their purchasing decisions because of the uncertainty: Will the tariffs go away, decrease, increase? However, I counsel my customers to make decisions based on today’s reality and plan for the tariffs to be in place at least until after the election. I remind them that based on the quality and safety criteria that we have implemented, it’s hard to spot buy, because most herbs on the market won’t meet our stringent standards.”

One herb that might be benefited by the trade war? Hemp. The New York Times reported in October that many farmers, affected by the drop in corn and soybean sales, are turning to hemp in an attempt to salvage their bottom lines (1). Andy Huston, a farmer in Illinois, told the Times: “Every time I put corn and soybeans in the ground, it’s a risk.” He added that he hopes that rising demand for hemp derivatives will help him turn a profit—but the Times noted that farmers are still figuring out how to grow the plant, how to grow it at less than 0.3% THC, how to grow only ‘female’ plants that will produce CBD, and how to find a processor.

Taking a broader view, Kreienbrink lists the function-based trends he’s seen: “Products that address pain management, weight management, energy, men’s health, women’s health, children’s health, cognitive health, heart health, and cold and flu concerns. Also, antioxidant products.”

Appell lists as main retail drivers the Immune Health and Weight Management categories, aligning with Kreienbrink’s assessment. He also notes that combination herbal supplements are growing faster than single-herb supplements.

Don’t discount digestive health; people are looking for pre- and probiotics, and you can cross-sell with the herbs category. One option: Alta Health’s Can-Gest, a blend of eight herbal extracts, pre-steeped for optimal assimilation. The company’s website says it can aid in the reduction of bloating, gas, and other digestive problems.

The anti-aging category is also booming. One plant-based option comes from Longevity by Nature, which offers a polyphenol supplement sourced from grapevine and olive leaf, clinically shown to lengthen telomeres and support chromosome health.

Then there’s the adaptogen category. David Winston, RH(AHG), Founder of Herbalist & Alchemist, explains that “Adaptogens are herbs that help to create a state of non-
specific resistance to a variety of stressors—psychological, noise, temperature, or physiological stress—and gently enhance and promote normal endocrine, nervous system, and immune function…Adaptogens act as stress mimetics or stress vaccines priming the body to respond more effectively and appropriately to stress.”

Regarding the popularity of this category, which includes ashwagandha and maca root, Winston says: “Stress is now one of the complaints most people have about their lives, and they understand that not only does this impact their quality of life, it undermines their health. With today’s unprecedented angst about the economy, the environment, and political and social upheavals, people are stressed out every day.” However, when selling in this category, Winston offers this advice: “Just as herbal formulas are traditionally created for the specific individual, I think it’s important to offer adaptogenic formulas for different kinds of stress in a range of people, not a ‘one size fits all’ approach. There are stimulating adaptogens, calming adaptogens, nourishing adaptogens, heating or cooling and moistening or drying adaptogens. Which one or ones are most appropriate depends on the person taking it. I would also point out that adaptogens are not panaceas and are not a substitute for the foundations of health—adequate and good quality sleep, a healthy diet, regular exercise, healthy lifestyle choices, and stress reduction techniques. Still, they can be an important way to reduce the effects of chronic or acute stress in your life.” He notes that he recently published a revised version of his book Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief, for those looking for an in-depth understanding of this category.

Keep an eye on this category—it’s got a future, in all different directions. Dr. Nick Bitz, Chief Scientific Officer at Youtheory, thinks that “there’s room for movement beyond ashwagandha—there are other herbs, based in evidence and tradition. Stress is epidemic. That category is going to grow.”

There’s a reason why formulas are more popular than single ingredients, generally speaking. Customers are growing wise to the fact that plants work better together. Webb notes that “whole plants deliver a more complete profile of active substances.” To best take advantage of this, A. Vogel makes a herbed sea salt: “Alfred Vogel found that trace elements in sea salt benefit the endocrine glands and normalize both hypofunction and hyperfunction, and concluded that adding fresh herbs and vegetables to pure sea salt would fulfill three functions: It stimulates the digestive system, supplements the healing effects of food, and offers additional flavor compared to table salt. Fresh herbs and vegetables are complex, and contain a variety of micronutrients the body requires.” Mixing whole-food herbs allows formulators to take advantage of complementary nutrients, and allows customers to take a function-focused formula that meets their needs.

To best take advantage of this category, then, keep an eye on the trending ingredients—and, of course, on the ingredients your particular shoppers keep buying, whether or not they’re trendy. But after that, spotlight function-focused products, backed by science, from manufacturers and suppliers with solid quality control and traceability programs. It helps you reassure customers that you’re selling the best, safest, healthiest products you can—it’s why your customers are loyal to you and your store. WF 

References

  1. Amelia Nierenberg, “Amid Trade War, Farmers Lean on a New Crop: Hemp,” New York Times. Posted 10/6/19. Accessed 10/7/19. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/06/us/hemp-farming-trade-war.html
  2. WholeFoods Magazine Staff, “INS Farms Launches Elder Pure Line of Raw Materials,” WholeFoodsMagazine.com. Posted 7/9/2019. Accessed 10/7/19. https://wholefoodsmagazine.com/suppliers/news-suppliers/ins-farms-launches-elder-pure-line-of-raw-materials/
  3. WholeFoods Magazine Staff, “Polyphenol Testing Finds American Elderberry Equal to European, INS Farms Reveals,” WholeFoodsMagazine.com. Posted 7/19/2019. Accessed 10/7/19. https://wholefoodsmagazine.com/news/main-news/polyphenol-testing-finds-american-elderberry-equal-to-european-ins-farms-reveals/

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