Knowledge base of herbal products sector is waning, pioneer fears

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Herbal products Herbalism

Balancing functionality of botanical ingredients against cost and availability concerns isn't easy, experts say.
Balancing functionality of botanical ingredients against cost and availability concerns isn't easy, experts say.
As the herbal products industry develops the question arises of whether some of the knowledge that drove the initial spate of creativity in the pre- and post-DSHEA period is being lost as founders retire. At least one industry pioneer fears that is the case.

“If you look at the majority of herbal companies very few of them in the market today were founded by herbalists and very few formulas on the shelf were put together by an herbalist,”​ Roy Upton, founder of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, told NutraIngredients-USA.

One from column A, two from column B

A recent spate of product launches highlights the question. In one recent case, a complete line of herbal products came to market with supplements aimed at sleep, stress, mental sharpness and so forth.  In the case of each product, the ‘proprietary blend’ of herbs worked out to exactly 1 gram, with four or five to eight or nine constituents in each case. Taken together, the whole exercise looked suspiciously as if the ingredients had been chosen from a catalog.

“Companies like this will hire a nutrition student or a biology student.  The company will say, go do a review of the literature and put together a menopause formula (for example),”​ Upton said.

According to Upton, the kitchen-sink, literature-search approach works like this: The R&D employee tasked with finding the ingredients will come up with a list of candidates, each of which in isolation might have some references in connection with a given condition.  That list gets funneled through marketing, with an eye toward what’s hot in the marketplace, and through purchasing, whose concern is how much each ingredient costs and how consistently available it might be.  After all those concerns are addressed (with a different emphasis on each step of the process depending on the culture of the company) an herbal formula is born.

“There’s really no clinical anything behind it.  No studies.  No philosophy of treatment.  It’s really a Western magic bullet approach that doesn't get the best of what herbal medicine has to offer,”​ Upton said.

“In the health food sector, you can probably count on one hand the number of companies offering herbal formulas that were developed by people who actually knew what they were doing. On the professional side (companies selling products through health care practitioners) you have more of that.  Many of the companies there were started by naturopaths or other trained professionals,” ​he said.

Western approach

Upton said many herbal products in the market today have fallen into a pharmaceutical, Western approach to health, and simply use different ingredients.  In this mode of thinking, health issues manifest themselves via symptoms. Knocking down that symptom makes the consumer feel better temporarily and convinces them that the product ‘works’.

“If they can’t sleep, give them a sedative like melatonin,”​ Upton said. “The problem is, if you don’t get at the reasons why they don’t sleep well, they have to keep taking the melatonin over and over.”

The formulas concocted by traditional herbalists proceed from a different model, Upton said.  Health issues are a manifestation of an overall imbalance in this view, and bringing the body’s system back into balance should be the goal. 

“Anybody can give you a bunch of laxatives and make you go to the bathroom.  Does that address your underlying digestive health issue?  This is something that the American herbal market has really suffered from.  We’ve got echinacea for the immune system.  Bilberry for eyes. Melatonin for sleep,” ​he said. “If you know what you are doing, you can put together a formula that addresses multiple aspects of a condition like cardiovascular disease.  Anybody can just lower blood pressure.”

Hope for the future

While Upton said there seems to be a dearth of people capable of putting together such formulas, there is hope for the future.

“There are schools that are graduating people with some herbal training.  There are thousands of new acupuncturists every year.  Hundreds of new naturopaths.  Undoubtedly some of them will get into the herbal products marketplace.  Whether those people will materialize as a brain trust for the industry, time will tell,” ​he said.

Mark Blumenthal, one of Upton’s fellow herbal industry pioneers, is more upbeat about the future of the sector, the existence of kitchen-sink, marketing-driven herbal products notwithstanding. Blumenthal is the founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council.

“I am constantly amazed by the number of people in their 20s and 30s who are enrolled in schools of herbal medicine,” ​Blumenthal said. “They are becoming practitioners in areas where herbs are an important part of the treatment modality.

“I don’t see interest in this area falling or waning.  You see a lot of proliferation of herbs into functional foods and beverages,”​ he said.

Indigenous knowledge

For Trish Flaster, a longtime herbal industry consultant, one issue of concern is to maintain the knowledge base of traditional healers in the indigenous areas where many herbs are sourced.  She has worked over the years to build up a network in a number of countries of sources who have experience in how herbs were collected, processed and used, and sometimes that knowledge can be critical in producing formulas using modern manufacturing techniques that work like the ones from the rain forest.

“Taking a thing out of context and combining it in with a couple of other herbs does not necessarily make it active,”​ Flaster said. “If you look at traditional uses, it’s rare that it’s just one plant. And then you have to take into account things like how they processed it. When did they pick it? Did they dry it in the sun or in the shade?

“I think there are a lot of great herbalists out there and healers who have the capability of developing great new formulas. But it’s a business, and it’s driven by marketing and sales and by what people want.  The majority of people want a quick fix. They don’t want to take the time to address their underlying problem. They want to go on to the next thing in their life.”​ she said.

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