Network marketing giant Herbalife sells a variety of dietary supplements, functional foods and personal care products. Even with recent sales declines, Herbalife is still a company that brings in more than $4 billion a year in revenue, and much of that is based on aloe products, which the company sells as digestive aids. Herbalife sells aloe powder, RTD aloe beverages and aloe concentrate by the gallon.
This makes the company possibly the world’s leading seller of aloe finished products in what is admittedly a poorly characterized market. A report by The International Aloe Science Council in 2012 put the global aloe market at $13 billion. The IASC director at the time, Devon Powell, characterized this as a “Global Domestic Product” for aloe, i.e., the value of aloe products on the supply side of the equation as well as the sale of the ingredient in dietary supplements, personal care products as well as functional foods and beverages. But this methodology has not been repeated, and other more recent surveys peg the market at a fraction of that. One recent commercially available report sizes the global market at $465 million, and said the market grew at a rate of 11% CAGR in the 2009-2016 period. In either case, it’s a big market, and one in which high demand could lead to the introduction of substandard quality products that are little more than green sugar water, that contain few of the bioactive polysaccharides in the ingredient.
Potentially harmful constiuents
There’s another issue with aloe. If the ingredient is improperly processed, it can contain a trio of chemicals, called aloin A, aloin B and aloe-emodin, that are known digestive irritants and have been associated with a heightened risk of some cancers. It’s fairly easy to process the raw leaves in such a way to exclude these, which results in what is referred to as ‘decolorized’ aloe. By all accounts all of the ingredients on the market fall into this category—free, in other words, of these irritants. But the fact that this contamination is possible means that good methods are needed to detect these chemicals, to make sure that an improperly processed batch doesn’t slip through.
Because of Herbalife’s position in the aloe market, and the importance of those ingredients to the company, it was necessary for the company almost by default to become a leader in developing quality methods for this ingredient, said Gary Swanson, senior VP of global quality for the company.
“Somewhere between 18% to 20% of the products sold by our company are aloe products, so it’s a very significant part of our product portfolio,” Swanson told NutraIngredients-USA.
Confusion about aloe continues
Swanson said it’s an example of how being a pre-DSHEA ingredient says nothing about proper characterization of that ingredient nor of its safety. Confusion about aloe, and the presence or not of the irritants, continues, leading even to the addition of the ingredient to the list of the substances requiring a Prop 65 cancer warning in California.
“Aloe has been a food ingredient for a long time and has been used for different purposes, both for topical products and for ingestion. But the science around for aloe has not been as well understood or as well used by companies as you could hope for,” Swanson said.
“With the introduction of 21 CRF Part 111 (DSHEA) ingredients like aloe were sold as foods or dietary ingredients but nobody was looking at the science behind them. There started to be a concern by FDA that among people marketing the product that they didn’t have a handle on what they were putting into their containers and didn’t have a good feel for the science behind these ingredients,” he said.
Becoming a quality leader
Swanson said Herbalife embarked on a multi-year process to develop a validated method for detecting these chemicals. That culminated with the publication of the method by AOAC in May. Having that underpinning means the company’s quality message is more than just marketing fluff, he said.
“We have to be able to give confidence to our company’s management that the materials we are using meet or exceed any of the applicable standards in the industry. We can prove that the aloe we are using is the best we could find in the world. Once you can state that scientifically, then you can state that in other forms, such as in marketing materials,” he said.
Swanson said this work on aloe is only one example of Herbalife’s commitment to quality leadership. The company has also done category-leading work on botanical identification, including via DNA methodologies, and has developed more precise ways to measure vitamin content, including a better method for vitamin B12. The company has beefed up its quality operations in China where it now has three manufacturing plants, Swanson said.
“We have more than 300 scientists working in our company, 36 of whom are PhDs. A while back we spent $500,000 on an NMR instrument solely to do identification work on aloe. Over the past six years that tool is now being used to do a lot of other analytical science, such as amino acid analysis or vitamin analysis. We have a partnership with Rutgers University specifically to do method development with that statistical tool,” Swanson said.