If you’re sometimes uncertain about herbal supplements, you’re in good company! Don’t feel bad, it is not your fault. There is a ton of incomplete or misinformation out there. It can be hard to know what is myth and what is fact. The good news? You’re about to get some clarity.
Let’s clear up some myths and facts about herbal supplements, shall we?
If you see a larger ingredient quantity on an herbal supplement label, it means you are getting more good stuff than if you see a smaller number.
Sounds simple enough, right? Not so fast! When looking at two products, make sure you are comparing apples to apples, not apples and oranges. In this case, ‘apples’ are whole herbs, and ‘oranges’ are extracts. Herbal extracts are a lot stronger than capsules of whole dried herbs. When you consume an extract, you get the active ingredients from a leaf or root, minus the fiber. If you are getting the whole leaf or root, you’ll need more to feel an effect, but a smaller quantity of extract is required for a potent effect. With extracts, you’ll need less to get the benefits and you can be more certain you’ll feel the effects.
PRO TIP: Remember: standardized extracts guarantee an exact amount of active ingredient. Check for the word extract. Other label give-aways include ratios, like “100:1” or phrases like “95% total proanthocyanins” (or other herbal active). For example, CranEssence does not just contain cranberry juice, it contains concentrated cranberry fruit extract.
North American herbal supplements are totally unregulated and can contain allergens.
In the US and Canada, manufacturers must adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), including meeting product specification for herb identity, purity, strength, and composition. Supplement companies are required to accurately list what the products contain including known allergens, provide their contact information, and report adverse events to the public record.
PRO TIP: If you have an allergy to milk, eggs, shellfish, fish, peanuts, soy, wheat, sesame, or tree nuts, know these ingredients must be declared on labels by law in Canada and the US. In Canada, mustard is also listed, and in the US, sulfites. Corn, however, is not subject to labeling requirements in either jurisdiction. If you have concerns, please seek more information about a supplement before taking it.
Herbal liquid formulas are made by steeping the herbs, infusing them, much as one makes an herbal tea.
Herbal extracts can be made as simple infusions (steeping) or decoctions (boiling), but more advanced techniques exist. Each type of plant material can get individual treatment—gentle steaming for flowers, enclosed processing to capture volatile oils, high-heat extraction for tough roots—in order to capture the most from each herb.
PRO TIP: Use the company contact info to get details about the way they make their herbal formulas.
At Flora, when we make Flor-Essence, we prefer the careful, individualized approach, in order to maximize the medicinal benefits of each herb. Additionally, instead of just steeping for five minutes, we actively decoct the herbs for 24 hours for optimal potency.
DNA barcode testing is the gold standard for all supplements. Good herbal products will be DNA tested.
DNA barcode tests are inappropriate for finished goods containing herbal extractions. Herbal extractions contain single active ingredients and not the whole plant with its protein and thus its DNA signature.
PRO TIP: DNA tests can provide botany and species details, confirming the identity of material from a whole plant, and if it has been genetically modified—but there may be no DNA in a properly made herbal extract. Testing for phytochemicals is more appropriate for these products.
CardioEssence contains many parts of the Hawthorn plant, including the flowers, leaves, and berries. We use DNA testing to ensure the unadulterated identity of the dried plant material we receive, but we must employ spectrophotometer testing to guarantee the primary active ingredients, the flavonoids in Hawthorn and thus its potency.
If DNA tests don’t work, there is no way to determine how pure or strong an herbal supplement is.
There are specific tests appropriate for different products. In Canada, these tests are required by Health Canada.
DETAILS TO KNOW: Testing may include TLC (Thin Layer Chromatography) for herb identification, HPLC (High Performance Liquid Chromatography) for standardized extracts, GC (Gas Chromatography) for oil-soluble and volatile components, AA (Atomic Absorption) testing for any residues, ICP (Inductive Couple Plasma) for mineral profiles, and Spectrophotometer testing for coloured components like flavonoids.
For RespirEssence, the inhalant particles are crucial, so we ensure that the important volatile oils are present in our herbal samples using GS testing. Then we ensure they do not evaporate from the thyme flowering tops during processing.
Drinking an herbal liquid formula is like having a cup of herbal tea and has the same effect.
Herbal extracts can be many times more concentrated than herbal tea steeped at home, as they are often standardized herbal extract formulas, not just decoctions.
PRO TIP: Use weight-to-volume calculations for comparisons to compare a tea to an herbal extract.
Step 1: Add up all the herbs in a typical cup of that particular tea (785 mg of herbs per tea bag)
Step 2: Divide by the amount of liquid used to prepare a cup (237 mL of water (8 oz.))
Step 3: Start with 1 g of herbs. We must multiply the 785 mg of herbs by 1.279 to equal 1 g.
Step 4: We multiply the other side by the same number (multiply 237 mL by 1.279 = 302)
|785 mg herbs||237 mL water|
|x 1.279||x 1.279|
|= 1 g herbs||= 302 mL water|
Answer = The tea in our example has a weight-to-volume ratio, or strength, of 1:302.
By comparison, SleepEssence contains 501.6 mg of herbs in every 15 mL dose. This translates to a strength of 1:29, more than ten times the potency of the tea in our example.
North American herbal supplements do not need to be proven efficacious or safe before going to market.
In Canada, Health Canada reviews natural health products for safety before they go to market. Here, herbal supplements get assessed before receiving approval and will be reviewed against various levels of evidence, including clinical evidence, traditional use claims, and pharmacological monographs before receiving approved health claims. In the US, it is the responsibility of the manufacturer or distributor to evaluate the safety and labeling of the products to ensure they meet DSHEA and FDA regulations. Manufactures and distributors in the US must notify the FDA when launching a new product and are also subject to random FDA inspections.
Every company will also have its own internal standards. At Flora, the Quality Control Department inspects each shipment of raw herbal materials and performs tests highly specific to the product being tested to assure all plant material and finished products meet their specifications for quality. Physical identification data, sensory and organoleptic profiles, rancidity, microbiological integrity, fatty acid profile, PCBs and Dioxin, heavy metal, packaging integrity, and pesticide residue standards, and minimum active ingredient levels met using the most advanced computer testing equipment.
PRO TIP: To ensure the highest standard of evidence of safety and usefulness has been established, learn what quality control a company insists on, and look for products reviewed and approved outside of the US prior to launch.
To get the best herbal products, we need to know what we are looking for.