Do you know where your herbs come from?Do you know why it matters?
How Sourcing Botanicals Impacts Product Quality November 25, 2021
Highlights from SHP/BAPP Webinar on Sourcing and Quality
Below are key points from SHP Director Ann Armbrecht’s conversation with medicinal plant researchers Prof. Michael Heinrich, PhD, and Anthony Booker, PhD. Dr. Heinrich is Professor of Ethnopharmacology and Medicinal Plant Research (Pharmacognosy) at the UCL School of Pharmacy and Dr. Booker is Senior Lecturer in Chinese herbal medicine and medicinal plant science at the University of Westminster and Research Associate at UCL. The webinar focused on Heinrich and Booker’s research investigating the relationship between how herbs are grown, handled, and processed and the quality of the finished herbal products.
Listen to other SHP Webinars here.
Long Storage Contributes to Poor Quality
In 2011/12, Dr. Booker spent about five months in India (as a part of his PhD funded by the Leverhulme Trust) researching the differences between vertically integrated value chains (VIVCs) of turmeric (Curcuma longa) and conventional supply chains where the turmeric is typically sold at auction. Farmers in the VIVC grew turmeric under contract with a producer company that then sold that turmeric to a supplement producing company, thus keeping the supply chain much shorter than when the turmeric was not sold under contract and offered for the highest price at auctions.
He discovered that when the price was too low, the farmers would store the turmeric often in quite poor conditions (using pesticides and fungicides to preserve the material) sometimes for two or three years until the price went up. During that time, the active metabolites, especially the volatile ingredients, gradually disappeared. (The article discussing this research can be found here.)
What is the Actual Expiration Date on Botanical Products?
After this initial research on turmeric Drs. Booker and Heinrich conducted similar studies on Rhodiola rosea and, most recently, St. John’s Wort (with Dr. F. Scotti). They concluded that this same practice must apply to many different herbs. When the price goes up, everyone decides to plant that crop hoping to make a good profit. The next year, there’s a surplus from over planting, the market price goes down, the practice of storing the herb until the price goes up is common.
Booker said, “When you buy something on the market with an expiration date, that date doesn’t necessarily take into account the two or three years, it’s been sitting somewhere in India.”(or in any country with similar practices in place)
Ingredients Not as Claimed on Label
The researchers also tested finished products in the UK. For up to 40% of products tested, they found that ‘what was in the bottle was often not what was claimed on the label’. In quite a few cases there were undeclared ingredients. Other times, there were lower cost substitutes to boost the concentration of constituents of interest, e.g. the flavonoid content, or artificial dyes were added in an attempt to fool laboratory tests carried out by quality control analysts. And in some case, there was no actual herbal ingredient at all. They found two different products, (ginkgo and rhodiola) sold on the UK market, containing only 5-hydroxytryptophan, which is said to have mild antidepressant type effects so that someone taking them might feel an impact though there is no actual herb in there at all.
Implications for the Botanical Industry
Heinrich and Booker emphasized the following points as crucial take away points for the botanical industry.
A detailed understanding of one’s value chain is absolutely crucial.
To really understand the value chain and quality, it is essential to visit the production sites in order to get the full picture of challenges and opportunities of production.
Shorter supply chain are more likely to preserve important constituents (e.g., volatile oils) so they make it into finished botanical products.
The main quality challenge is ensuring that the botanical material is properly handled, processed, and stored, or more generally not exposed to poor practice along a value chain.
Good governance and/or at least self-regulation of the industry which is properly enforced from the cultivation and planting stage all the way through to the end product is the only way to assure the quality.
Poverty Drives Poor Quality
This is much more than a quality issue. Good governance may help from an industry and consumer point of view in terms of quality. Yet, it is essential to understand that poor quality is often driven by poverty and the desire to get the best price for the raw material to make a living. As Heinrich continued, “It depends on what people need to decide based on their livelihoods. Can I afford to sell this product today? Or is the price too low? We need to think about the mechanisms behind this and how we can enable people to have a more sustainable way of producing these primary materials.”
Similarly, value chains help in understanding best practice in terms of sustainable sourcing from an ecological / environmental perspective (circular economy).
Broader Implications of Research
The importance of stepping out of one’s own thinking and see the other side, considering the issues from another perspective, and understanding the complexity involved.
This research has implications for clinical trials of herbs. Regardless of quality differences, there is extreme variation in chemical composition of plants depending on how and where they’ve grown. It is important when doing clinical trials on herbs, to thoroughly characterize it, e.g., for a powdered herb, identify whether the make-up of the sample used is representative of the species. Otherwise, there is no way to control the outcome of future trials done on a plant that may be the same species but of different chemical composition.
The importance of looking at how our actions in more economically developed countries, especially looking for the cheapest products, affect people especially in less economically developed countries, and find a way of working together, so we can provide better governance for that supply chain all the way along.
What Can Consumers Do?
It’s not easy. Heinrich gave the example of honey, “Many of the international value chains today are huge. In many cases, crystallized sugar is mixed with a few other things, not honey. You can buy it from local producers, so it may be of good quality. But then, local producers may not be able to check for the presence of certain unwanted contaminants such as pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which must happen in the international chains. There’s no straightforward and 100% certain answer.”
Organic certification can provide some assurance of quality because it requires that the plant or a company has been subject to basic external auditing, which requires a lot of effort and so offers some assurance that at least companies have gone through that process to be certified and pass inspection.
To listen to the audio recording of the webinar, go here.