Companies use different extraction methods to see the compounds out of the cellulose of the plants to produce the medicine. These differences are often a product’s main selling point and the formulas and systems used will differ depending on the plant, the system of medicine used by the company, their philosophy as a company, and the type of finished product: whether tincture, tea, capsules, tablets.
I’ve seen every kind of extraction – from extracting plant constituents from freshly harvested herbs with organic alcohol in glass jars to rooms lined with huge stainless steel vats extracting these constituents from ethanol or a similar product. I was on a journey following plants through the supply chain, and it was hard for me to relate to the huge steel vats where there wasn’t a plant in sight. Yet, this is increasingly how herbal supplements are made. And so it is important to understand the issues involved to make good decisions about what questions to ask and what products to buy.
Issues in Manufacturing
Below we introduce the key issues we focused on in the manufacturing process. We will continue to develop this section of the website.
Finished product companies often outsource numerous steps of the manufacturing process to contract manufacturers. Contract manufacturing is a bit of a dirty word in the herbalist world but I came to see that, like much of what I discovered, it isn’t that simple. Again, it all depends on the relationships maintained at each step of the supply chain and the rigor with which the finished product company oversees the entire process. We focused on companies that were actively involved in sourcing their raw materials and in visiting and auditing the contract manufacturer to ensure that their standards were maintained. Most companies don’t maintain that close relationship.
To produce a standardized extract, a batch of herbs is boiled in a water/alcohol mixture. Eventually the herbs are strained out, leaving only the liquid. Then the water is evaporated until a goo-like substance remains. This is a solid extract. However, there is much discussion around this process. One opinion is that, as parts of the herb are removed, the synergistic effects of the many herb constituents are lost. This more closely resembles a pharmaceutical model rather than an herbal model, which is based on the use of the whole plant. On the other hand, standardized extracts may be stronger and more effective in cases of serious illness. It depends on the end use. A qualified herbalist can help you decide which is best suited for your needs.
The key issue in manufacturing is how the constituents are extracted. Companies may use solvents such as methanol, acetone, and ethyl acetate to make this process easier. These companies claim the solvents are removed at the end. However, I was told that 100% of a solvent never fully evaporates so there will always be a chemical residue. The International Conference on Harmonization has established limits for solvent residues that are the basis for the standards used by the American Herbal Products Association and are generally followed by the US botanical industry . In contrast, extracts from Asia that don’t follow these standards have been found to have solvent residues that are off the charts.
Certified organic companies manage these safety issues by using only certified organic solvents and water extraction. It is worth asking non-certified organic companies how they ensure that the solvent residues are below the recommended levels. A company does not have to list on the label which solvents were used during processing. It’s ironic that solvents known to cause disease are being used to produce products used to promote health.
As Randy Buresh of Oregon’s Wild Harvest explained, “My belief is that those active constituents are already there. If you can get high quality plant material and process it properly in small batches from a whole to a powder and into a capsule and do that every 6-8 weeks you are delivering the same therapeutic activity you have in a standardized extract without running it through a solvent.” You can see OWH’s process of encapsulation in the video above.
Ultimately it is up to each of us to determine what level of processing we are comfortable with. We can then encourage these companies to raise the bar on their sustainability and quality standards overall.