A booming market with a growing commitment to sustainability.
Denis Alimonti, Director of U.S. Nutrition, Maypro, Purchase, NY, www.maypro.com
Josef A. Brinckmann, Research Fellow for Medicinal Plants and Botanical Supply Chain, Traditional Medicinals, Sebastopol, CA, www.traditionalmedicinals.com
Bill Chioffi, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer, Nammex, Gibsons, BC, Canada, www.nammex.com
Annie Eng, CEO, HP Ingredients, Bradenton, FL, https://hpingredients.com
Chris Kilham, Medicine Hunter, Leverett, MA, www.medicinehunter.com
Wilson Lau, President, Nuherbs, San Leandro, CA, https://nuherbs.com
Jay Levy, Director of Sales, Wakunaga of America, Mission Viejo, CA, https://kyolic.com
Nirmal Nair, CEO and Founder, Sempera Organics, Morgan Hill, CA, https://semperaorganics.com
Anurag Pande, PhD, Vice President Scientific Affairs, Sabinsa, East Windsor, NJ, https://sabinsa.com
Tom Petrie, East Coast Representative, GCI Nutrients, Burlingame, CA, https://gcinutrients.com
Nancy Steely, ND, MBA, Vice President of R&D, Natural Alternatives International, Carlsbad, CA, www.nai-online.com
Anand Swaroop, PhD, Founder & President, Cepham, Somserset, NJ, https://cepham.com
The American Botanical Council’s (ABC) 2021 Herb Market Report showed that herbal dietary supplement sales in the U.S. totaled approximately $12.35 billion, the highest recorded annual spending on herbs ever in the U.S.—and 2021’s botanical sales were up 9.8 percent from 2020.
Depending on estimates, the global market for botanicals and herbal extracts is expected to reach $133 to 151.9 billion by 2024 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of between 5.6 and 8.9 percent.
As the botanicals market continues to grow, there is also an increasing commitment to growing, harvesting, extracting and producing herbals in more sustainable ways.
Here to help us dig into all of this is a distinguished panel of dietary supplement industry experts.
NIE: Broadly speaking, what is the state of the market for botanicals, ingredients, standalone herbal products and multi-botanical formulations?
Kilham: The herbal market continues to grow, due to efficacy of herbs for common health needs, some very fine quality products and scads of word-of-mouth advocacy. One person tries butterbur for urinary incontinence, it works, they tell their friends. Another is tired and tries ashwagandha, feels more vigorous, tells others. Herbs got a big boost during COVID-19’s worst, and that put herbal products into a lot more households. According to ABC’s 2021 Herb Market Report, we saw a 9.7 percent increase in herbal sales. There is also more clinical science, like the human studies that have boosted KSM-66 ashwagandha, and many smarter formulations based on efficacy rather than on price.
Steely: Certainly, botanicals like echinacea have been well known for their specific benefits for many years, while others, like turmeric or more “unique” mushrooms, have taken a bit longer to really take hold and expand across dietary supplements as well as foods. The food and dietary supplement market is continuing to launch innovative products, and more and more they are including herbal ingredients. Look at ashwagandha—a few years ago people had no idea what it was, much less knew how to pronounce it, and now it’s in a plethora of supplement and food products. Mushrooms were the little things on the top of your steak or in a soup; now there are multiple well-known species found in coffees, protein bars and powders, supplements, etc., as consumers are becoming more aware of their benefits.
Eng: It appears that standalone herbal products remain strong—but more so with branded ingredients over generics. This occurs when both supplier and brand marketer are cohesive in providing continuous consumer education programs.
Pande: The market for botanicals, ingredients, standalone or multi-botanical formulations has been quite strong and is showing healthy growth in a year-to-year comparison. The driving force for this growth has been increasing consumer interest and awareness in natural products for supporting health and wellness. New science and clinical studies on botanicals that have long been used traditionally, technical advancements such as in extraction, and identification of active components of herbal extracts, have all increased the confidence level of consumers. The availability of herbal products in many different forms, such as gummies, capsules, tablets, caplets, granules, chewables, soft chews, liquid dietary supplements, has increased the consumer base, and is also responsible for sustained growth in botanicals.
Chioffi: Very broadly speaking the market is steady in specific distribution channel growth yet double-digit rates are in question for this year, an interesting thing to consider when we speak about sustainability. The surge of immune-related support products triggered by two years of pandemic mentality seems to have flowed directly into the ground where the mushrooms have sprouted up once again to begin regenerating the market as they do the forest floors.
Swaroop: Botanicals have been used for centuries to treat various ailments, and modern tools like AI (artificial intelligence) continue uncovering more potential benefits of these natural remedies.
Despite this wealth of data, there are few robust scientific studies on multi-botanical formulations. The newer clinical studies focus on 1~3 bio-actives of an herb instead of its full-spectrum constituents. Standardizations of herbs, aided by AI data mining, will drive growth in standalone herbal products. It will be exciting to see how the industry uses data tools to balance research costs, claims, sustainability and affordability of dietary ingredients.
Lau: According to the statistics the market for botanicals is booming. However, I think it’s important to dig deeper and ask how you define herbal products, whether they be comprised of a single botanical or multiple botanicals. Do you count them as herbal product if it’s vitamins plus herbs? I have a harder question—should ashwagandha extract standardized to a specific chemical constituent and that chemical constituent is what the clinical trial is measuring the effectiveness of, is that an herbal product or something else? Its starting material is a botanical, but at a certain point, if you are selling chemistry instead of the plants used in herbalism, can that still be a botanical product? I think the current industry definition captures all the examples that I used, but it’s important to note that they are very different things.
Perhaps we should be calling some of these extracts standardized to a specific chemical constituent “fine chemicals.”
NIE: Although mushrooms and algae are technically neither plant nor animal, they do often come up in related discussions, so what is the state of the market for mushroom-based and algae-derived formulas and ingredients, respectively?
Alimonti: While market data tell us sales of mushroom formulas have been growing at a nice clip, Maypro has experienced first-hand an increased interest in our immunomodulating AHCC cultured mushroom mycelia extract. Sales of specific algae-derived ingredients, specifically astaxanthin, are projected to grow at a CAGR of 14 percent through 2030. With that in mind, we developed MicroActive Astaxanthin with sustained release and more than three times the bioavailability of regular astaxanthin. We will be watching the astaxanthin category closely, as well as manufacturer demand for more bioavailable ingredients.
Nair: From our perspective, mushroom product demand is vigorous among consumers. We just added two new mushrooms: tiger milk (Lignosus rhinocerus) and black hoof (Phellinus linteus) to provide our brand manufacturer partners with more mushrooms with which to customize their formulas.
Chioffi: Mushrooms continue to drive growth and innovation for many food, beverage and dietary supplement brands and, as such, the market is becoming saturated in certain categories, such as alt coffee beverages. More companies are choosing to incorporate these ingredients into food and ready-to-drink beverages to reach consumers not already taking dietary supplements in other dose forms. These present some challenges but, as we see at Nammex every day, having GRAS (generally recognized as safe) dossiers makes these types of ingredients easier to work with across multiple regulatory pathways to market.
New delivery forms like liquid soft gels containing mushroom extracts are being applied successfully in the traditional dietary supplement market. From a quality perspective for mushrooms, the analysis of beta and alpha glucans for activity via Neogen’s “Megazyme” test kit and a simple starch test using iodine or a third-party lab, can tell you whether you have pure mushroom material or not. Mushrooms do not contain starch yet many products claiming to contain them test high in alpha glucan and starch, indicating the presence and predominance of the solid grain substrate on which mycelium is grown. In addition to this material not actually being mushroom, it makes it difficult to tell if a mushroom product has a carrier since those will identify as starch in most cases.
The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) created a guidance document which became effective in 2019, but many companies still do not comply as this is a voluntary policy. A food guidance in CPG 585.525 from the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) states not to use the term “mushroom” for mycelium in foods since the consumer understands the term to mean the visible above ground portions of the fungal organism, yet the market remains flooded with products containing pictures of mushrooms all over the package and marketing materials and sometimes inside the supplements facts panel. We feel there is room for improvement in transparency and accuracy. Indeed some brands have started to label their “myceliated biomass” in the Supps Facts panel as opposed to the “other ingredients” section indicating they are aware that by weight the substrate constitutes a substantial part of the ingredient and something anyone familiar with growing mushrooms on a solid grain substrate will also affirm as true. That is a positive change that we hope will continue.
Swaroop: Mushrooms have shown explosive growth in recent years. Driven by immunity and gut health benefits, the industry can build upon consumer acceptance and trust for the next growth phase. The new areas of growth will be cognitive support, cheaper protein source, next generation antioxidants, and adaptogen support. The market is expected to grow in double digits with adaptation of mushroom knowledge and application from Asia to the West.
All types of algae—rhodophyta (red algae), phaeophyta (brown algae), and chlorophyta (green algae), macroalgae and microalgae have good potential as ingredients. From mineral sources to carotenoids, proteins, enzymes, polyunsaturated fatty acids, sugars, oil, lipids, sterols and xanthophylls, there are several uses. Algae can be used in precision fermentation to manufacture bio-transformed phytochemicals. Algae also takes less space to grow.
Steely: Companies are looking at sustainably sourced, organically grown and whole-mushroom derived powders and extracts to meet consumer demands, and we are seeing a plethora of mushroom-containing products. In the dietary supplement space, these range from the typical immune support mushroom products to those such as stress-relief, cognitive support, energy, and gut health, among others, as research into the benefits of different mushroom species increases. Beyond the standard supplements, there are mushroom-based coffees and lattes, powders to add to your protein shakes, mushroom-containing protein bars, and even mushrooms in chocolate. The global mushroom market is projected to continue to increase as a result.
The same holds true for the algae market; not only chlorella and spirulina, but also algae-derived ingredients like omega-3 fatty acids, and carotenoids such as beta-carotene and astaxanthin, proteins, etc. Growing consumer demand, and interest by various governments around the world—based on increasing population and nutrition demands, are fostering the growth in the algae-derived ingredient market. And while this growth also includes use in animal feeds, the use in foods, cosmetics and dietary supplements is also expected to increase through the next decade.
Lau: Mushrooms are booming. It’s amazing, the acceptance and growth in this sector of the industry. For the industry to have vigorous debates about mycelium versus fruiting body, and not just two wizened sages duking it out in the back room, points to the success of this segment of the market. I may as well just add fuel to my controversial question about botanicals, but are mycelium really mushrooms? I can’t eat them with my dinner, but I can standardize them to some compound quite efficiently. That debate will continue, but I think clearly differentiating between the two on product labeling is essential.
NIE: According to the ABC’s Sustainable Herbs Program, sustainability is about producing herbal remedies “that are good for people and good for the environment” and involves taking steps to ensure that companies “are also working to sustain livelihoods and the earth.” What would you add to this?
Petrie: Sustainability is all about returning more to the environment than you take out in whatever you’re growing. It’s simply being a good steward of your farms.
Pande: For the natural products industry to grow, sustainability efforts are very important. These efforts are not only aimed toward sustainable production of medicinal crops, but also toward reducing the impact of the production methods and waste generated on the environment. Sustainability efforts should be also aimed toward conserving the natural resources, as well as protecting the habitat of wildlife, because a healthy ecosystem supports botanicals. Part of sustainability efforts also involves farmers, to educate them, provide them resources to ensure that the herbal products are in compliance with regulations and are sourced without harming the environment.
At Sabinsa we have a focused approach toward sustainable practices while sourcing raw material for our herbal products. A great example is our sourcing of Pterocarpus marsupium raw material, which is obtained from the heartwood of the Indian Kino tree, in order to protect the resources and obtain this raw material sustainably. The Sami Sabinsa Group initiated the replantation of P. marsupium, which paved the way for 166,600 trees to be replanted in area of 250 acres. Sustainability efforts like these not only generate sustainable resources for future, but also help create employment opportunities for farmers and processing companies. Mass plantation also helps protect against soil erosion and climate change.
Chioffi: It’s time to reevaluate the use of the word “sustainable.” It lacks a unified and codified definition and, though very well intentioned, begs the question: “What is sustainable?” If you ask three different companies to define this term you will likely get three different answers and there needs to be clarity. One definition from the dictionary for sustainable; “adj. able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” Levels of consumption of herbs are not decreasing, the climate crisis is wreaking havoc with flooding, drought, and fires and there are no optimal solutions to ensure the health and security of those working on the crops physically or mentally. Recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that farmers are twice as likely as people in other occupations to die by suicide. This alone shows things are not sustainable.
Interestingly the term “regenerative” has become popularized, which is certainly more than just a term, now codified with agricultural certifications through organizations such as The Regenerative Organic Alliance. For the practice of responsible sourcing in herbs and sustaining the livelihoods of the people who consume and produce them, I believe we have a corporate and social responsibility to our planet first of all. Quibbling over a word choice seems silly sometimes, but as I look around and I see that we still cannot properly feed, clothe and enjoy ourselves or maintain a rich variety of life (biodiversity) and economic growth simultaneously so, I ask you, is that sustainable?
Alimonti: Maypro’s mission is to make people healthier, and therefore happier, by connecting manufacturers with innovative naturally derived ingredients that make a real difference in people’s well-being. Our work relies on nature and science working together and we understand the need to support that symbiotic relationship. Our team has built a portfolio that includes organic and non-GMO (genetically modified organism) options, responsibly sourced ingredients that meet our high quality-assurance standards and feature upcycled ingredients derived from natural materials that would otherwise have gone to waste. Three of our branded nutraceuticals rely on upcycling for their production—Juvecol, AppleActiv DAPP and ETAS.
Steely: I think that summarizes it very nicely; really to elaborate more it involves not just looking at the sustainability of supply chain for an herb’s availability—especially in light of climate change factors impacting the supply chain, but also looking at the socioeconomic and environmental sustainability. Are the farmers and workers being paid living wages and able to sustain and provide opportunities for their own families? Is there care taken to ensure that the herbs are being cultivated in a manner that supports the local ecosystem and biodiversity, or is there a focus solely on cultivation to support supply chain? Wild harvesting can have its risks for supply, but looking at methods to support the local ecosystem and communities, while supporting, maintaining, and/or reestablishing the environmental habitat in the area, is also an important consideration for sustainability.
Brinckmann: At Traditional Medicinals, all three pillars of sustainability are supported in our botanical procurement policies and practices, specifically economic viability, environmental protection and social equity.
For reliable access to consistent quality botanical raw materials, over the years we developed relationship-based procurement practices, in partnership with producers and suppliers whose values are aligned.
For our sustainable sourcing practices to work, everyone in the value chain must have the opportunity to earn a dignified and sustainable livelihood. And everyone must know and trust each other! In a whole ecosystem approach, we also take people, plants and animals into consideration.
For these reasons, in the 1990s we began to explore the emerging sustainability concepts that were reaching beyond the existing organic and biodynamic farm production standards.
In the late 1990s, we began to encourage and support farmers in our network to implement the Fairtrade Standards for Herbs, Herbal Teas & Spices. Then in the 2000s, we supported our medicinal plant wild collection operations to implement the USDA’s (U.S. Department of Agriculture) Organic Wild Crop Harvesting Practice Standard together with the FairWild Standard. Taken together, these two standards cover the ecological, economic and social criteria that are the most relevant for supporting long-term sustainability and viability of medicinal plant wild harvesting operations.
But there is more. If an endangered animal species shares habitat with our medicinal plant production areas, we also consider wildlife-friendly standards.
In the 2000s, we began to work with various nature conservation NGOs in biodiversity conservation programs, including some involving sustainable production of medicinal plants in endangered animal species habitat areas.
Lau: I think the sustainability catches a lot of aspects and is very broad on purpose. I agree with The Sustainable Herbs Program’s Director Dr. Ann Armbrecht who says that herbal remedies have to be good for the people (those who use them and those who help make them possible) and the environment. I think, we as an industry, don’t pay close enough attention to the Nagoya protocol on the convention on biological diversity and how our use of indigenous IP is mutually shared with those that are sharing it. But I want to really advocate that we, both as an industry and individually, do everything that we can to make sure we don’t get to the 1.5C (2.7F) tipping point of global warming because if we breach it, our botanical genetic diversity will be severely impacted.
Nair: Sustainability is about community that gathers for a common purpose and common interests, and is a community that is inclusive, constantly welcoming new participants. Although individual companies and consumers can make a small difference, a unity makes a dramatic, ongoing difference in promoting global well-being.
Kilham: In a sustainable system all parts flourish. That means the soil, water and air are protected, wildlife is not harmed, farm workers are not subjected to agripoisons, wages are fair and communities share in the benefits of botanical success. Extraction is performed without the use of exotic (hydrocarbon) solvents, and facilities operate according to fastidious guidelines and GMPs (good manufacturing practices). At the end of the chain of trade, the end user gets real health benefits.
NIE: In a related question, and this one is for manufacturers, how would you define “sustainable nutrition,” and how does this goal factor into what products or formulas you develop?
Kilham: Adulteration is a real problem in botanicals today. Mis-identification, use of incorrect plant parts, substitution of materials that are not the correct plant and inclusion of drugs all happen regularly. Only constant and vigilant testing can catch this. You need TLC and other methods for identification, and testing for pesticides, drugs and heavy metals. Unfortunately, we see a lot of drug adulteration of botanicals out of China. This casts a shadow on reputable Chinese companies and damages the industry. I’ve personally seen Chinese sex-enhancing herbals test positive for Viagra and cocaine. You’ve got to test. if you don’t do that, then you do not know what you have.
Levy: At Wakunaga, we believe that providing consumers with the nutrients they need for good health should never compromise the environment or future generations. This is the core of responsible and sustainable nutrition.
NIE: According to the 2021 Global Sustainability Survey by Simon-Kucher & Partners, sustainability is rated as an important purchase criterion for 61 percent of U.S. consumers. Give one example of what your company is doing to embrace or promote sustainability in reference to botanicals.
Lau: Nuherbs has been focused on sustainability since our inception; being rooted in TCM (traditional Chinese medicine), we inherently take a long-term view—both forward and backward—in everything we do. One current project, involving a minor herb in TCM, but used in huge amounts world-wide, is hibiscus. Currently, most of the world’s supply of hibiscus comes from Africa and then is shipped to other countries to be process then finally shipped to the U.S. We are growing our organic hibiscus in Mexico so that we shorten the ingredient’s journey from the field to the end user. Our hibiscus is grown and processed in Mexico and shipped directly to brands and manufacturers in the U.S. to be made into healthy, tasty products for American consumers. I can go on and on about this project, but just visualize something moving across our Southern border versus it moving all over to the world before arriving in the U.S. It saves money, time, lowers the carbon footprint, and minimizes vulnerability to disruption.
Eng: We know the people who grow and handle our botanicals. For example, our Tongkat Ali is exclusively wildcrafted by the Orang Asli, the indigenous people of Malaysia, who have worked with this herb for numerous generations. We protect their interests by assisting them to set up cleaning and drying facility for the root so they can make more money instead of just harvesting, we help provide for their independence and ability to nurture their families and their communities.
HP Ingredients also provides tongkat ali (Eurycoma longifolia) seedings to the Orang Asli communities so that they can plant more tongkat ali closer to the edge of the rainforest that have been depleted from years of wild harvesting. Today the trees are already close to 5 years old and may be close to harvesting.
HP Ingredients also employs sustainable harvesting practice by using the pruning techniques when harvesting the maqui berry in Chile. The branches are then placed underneath the trees to become natural compost for the tree.
Nair: Our purpose at Sempera is to heal and feed the world. Sempera currently contributes to 11 of the 17 UN SDGs. In addition, we are working diligently to achieve being a zero-waste manufacturing facility at scale. A lot of what we do are not very obvious. For instance, we employ rigorous testing and sanitation processes to reduce/eliminate contaminants and effectively waste. Combining that with a continuous improvement culture, we strive to maintain a sustainability and waste reduction focus across everything from raw material selection to manufacturing processes. Waste is a large problem globally. We have active R&D efforts on upcycling and adding value back into waste side streams from F&B processing.
Brinckmann: By participating in the Fair-for-Life, Fair Trade and FairWild production and trading systems, Traditional Medicinals voluntarily pays not only fair price premiums but also contributes to social premium funds. The herb production communities can democratically vote on how to use those funds for improving quality of life.
Just as important, these standards require a visible (transparent and traceable) supply chain and a willingness of the brand to offer support to producers upon request. In addition, from time to time some producers ask Traditional Medicinals to prefinance certain costs associated with implementing sustainability standards, annual audits and certification fees.
We also carry out our own needs assessments in partnership with long-term producers. We have found that the benefits of producers implementing the required sustainability standards are often not enough. Our Social Good and Sustainability department also initiates special programs with selected producers to build onto the initiatives that the communities have prioritized for use of the social premium fund monies.
Pande: As mentioned above, the Sabinsa group undertook an ambitious long term project to replant 166,600 P. marsupium trees on 250 acres of land. Deforestation has been a major concern in India and one of the ayurvedic tree affected by this deforestation is Pterocarpus marsupium. The Sami-Sabinsa’s reforestation program is an excellent example of collaboration between private companies and state government for creating sustainable natural resources as well as for improvement in social economic conditions of people located in adjoining forest areas. This effort was recognized both and national and international levels.
Additionally, our fair-trade contract farming program agricultural practices training emphasizes environmental responsibility. Other efforts include: • Encouraging sustainability in the field and supporting regenerative agriculture and biodiversity across the natural products industry.
• Sami-Sabinsa has retained Dr. Anjanette DeCarlo as their sustainability consultant. She is specifically helping Sabinsa to source sustainable supplies of frankincense, also known as boswellia gum. Her extensive experience on the African continent is helping the company sustainably source other items.
Levy: Long before the term “regenerative agriculture” hit the scene, Wakunaga prioritized sustainability. Not only is our garlic organically grown, we also use sustainable farming techniques, including crop rotation to minimize soil degradation and foster healthier soil. Our packaging relies on recyclable plastic or glass bottles, and our labels and boxes are printed with soy-based inks. We take these extra measures because we at Wakunaga of America believe that to truly support a healthy body, it’s critical to also support a healthy planet.
NIE: Low-quality raw materials is something all responsible manufacturers seek to avoid; what steps should manufacturers take to ensure that they are sourcing high-quality ingredients?
Pande: Any responsible brand should have set standards to qualify raw material for their products. Fit for purpose testing and information on chain of custody can reveal much about the quality claims of the supplier. Low quality materials are often poorly sourced, and their production processes lack the essential safety check points and testing to save cost. But these affect quality and safety of products and often may cast a bad light on the brand itself. Presence of heavy metal “lead” or anti-nutritional compounds, like oxalates, have been cause for concern in turmeric products.
Quality of the material can be negatively impacted if the supplier is trying to offer a material that is not entirely as per description, for example herbal products where synthetic adulterants are added but the product is described as natural. This economically motivated adulteration may be hard to catch in regular analysis, which is why we advise radiocarbon testing. While the supplier and the ingredient should be chosen after doing due diligence, there is no alternative to testing to confirm the material meets specifications.
Alimonti: Only work with suppliers that provide full transparency in terms of chain-of-custody and documentation; also make sure that all manufacturing facilities used (whether third-party or contract) are fully cGMP certified.
Lau: Manufacturers should make it a priority to source high-quality ingredients, and it’s essential to define this with specificity for your product. The herb and herbal quality have to be fit for your use. For example, some of our customers are using ginseng to make teas with, and what they consider high quality for them is slightly different than what my extraction customers consider high quality. So, we can’t lump quality into a one size fit all solution. But, in either case they should be focused on high quality because they can get a better result that they are seeking to achieve if they do.
So once the definition of quality is appropriate for the intended use, vet suppliers to ensure what they provide meets those specs. Careful sourcing and testing to confirm identity, potency and purity is part of that process. Another essential component is good communication between brands and suppliers about forecasting projected orders, which helps the suppliers be prepared to meet brands’ needs.
Swaroop: The first step is to have a well-defined purchase specification with validated testing methods. Avoid ratio extracts—as manufacturers, we know it is not possible to have a consistent quality of ratio extract with changing climate conditions and change in crops. If the label calls for ratio, have a biomarker which is identifiable and quantifiable. Be ready to accept a variation in color of botanical extracts—there is no way manufacturers control the color of raw herbs—it depends on climate, growing season and geographical location. Rely on robust method of identifications like HPTLC, not on rapid methods like NIR. Grow relations with suppliers beyond the transactional approach to have a true partnership based on transparency. Demand data from your suppliers.
Steely: Working with reputable suppliers, ensuring you have an effective supplier qualification program, and of course, following cGMPs around raw material testing/identification is key to ensuring high-quality ingredients. Of course, like so much else in life, you get what you pay for, so while a raw material source may seem like a great price, you may very well end up paying a higher overall cost in retesting and/or loss in production time if you need to re-source material that has failed testing.
Nair: In the case of mushrooms, the more control the supplier has over the process, the more transparent, which relates directly to quality assurance. Sempera’s mushrooms are cultivated in our indoor lab farm, a sterile, climate-controlled facility that allows for control over each aspect of the growing process. This results in a reliable supply of our ingredients.
The process additionally provides the ability to ensure that the materials received by our customers contain what we say it does: 20 percent beta glucans and 50 percent polysaccharides, plus the distinctive compounds found in each species.
Lastly, look for origins and certifications. Sempera Organics is a California-based spore-to-store (ready ingredients) company.
We have worked very hard to establish our SQF Level 2 and cGMP certifications. All our products are certified organic, non-GMO, DNA verified, gluten free, kosher and vegan.
Chioffi: As a raw-material supplier of organically certified mushroom extracts, we believe that proper characterization of our products is of critical importance. Of course, we test for heavy metals, pesticides, microbial contaminants and food specific pathogens; these are just a foundation of our quality control. As important are the identity tests and our chemical profile tests which verify that our products contain the active compounds known to provide the benefits. We encourage manufacturers to confirm our Certificates of Analysis (COAs) and we provide them with a listing of laboratories that can perform the tests.
Eng: Manufacturers can and should ask for proof of transparency as well as safety, which can be collated and shown by the ethical supplier partner. We subject our incoming raw materials to an array of tests to determine composition, cleanliness and that there are no adulterants in any form.
Levy: One of the most important things manufacturers can do is to follow GMP. But that’ s just a starting point. Wakunaga has gone a step further and have obtained international certifications including TGA, German GMP, and ISO 9001:2015. All of these certifications require a long chain of quality-control checks to test and verify the quality of the raw materials used in all of our products. As a result, consumers can rest assured that they are getting the purist, highest quality ingredients in each of our supplements.
Petrie: All manufacturers have to pay attention to what is being written on this or that ingredient as it is sourced from different countries. Also, COAs help to alert suppliers about potential toxins that might lurk in a particular ingredient. They would do this proactively before providing it to their final customer. I don’t wish to target any country, but some countries have enormous pollution problems, and this means analysis’ have to be done regularly and COAs should be promised to all customers as a matter of doing business. This keeps many manufacturers honest and their customers happy.
Brinckmann: It is a product manufacturer’s responsibility to specify the quality of raw materials to be procured, and to verify that all incoming raw materials are tested and found to be in compliance with the written quality specification.
We have avoided low-quality botanical raw materials by using official pharmacopeial monographs to function as the basis of our written quality specifications. The herbal monographs provided in the European Pharmacopoeia (PhEur) and United States Pharmacopoeia (USP) provide the necessary parameters and test methods to specify the desired composition, identity, quality, purity and strength for most of the herbs we use.
Traditional Medicinals also uses some Asian medicinal plant species. For many of these, our written quality specifications are based on the monographs of the Ayurvedic Pharmacopoeia of India (API), the Japanese Pharmacopoeia (JP), or the Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China (PPRC).
Many of the producers and suppliers in Traditional Medicinals’ botanical supply chain have been with the company for decades, some since the 1970s and 1980s. We have avoided low quality by operating a relationship-based, partnership procurement model, coupled with specifying pharmacopeial quality herbs, and providing the requisite data for producers to plan crop production areas sustainably.
Of course, high quality and sustainability are not free. If a company “price buys” its ingredients, that company will surely invite low quality. For Traditional Medicinals, it is not about negotiating a low price, but, rather, securing access to high-quality medicinal plants in an equitable and responsible manner. This requires developing and maintaining trusting relationships and fair trade to the satisfaction of buyer and seller.
NIE: In a related question, economic adulteration is another problem for the herb industry—bilberry is one of many herbs often substituted with knock-off botanicals—how do you, or how can companies, avoid getting saddled with adulterated raw materials?
Alimonti: Bilberry has a well-deserved reputation for supporting vision health. It is, unfortunately, also an ingredient that has seen some instances of adulteration given the cost for this premium wild-harvested berry. For finished product manufacturers who want a genuine, high-quality, clinically tested bilberry extract for an effective finished product, Bilberon is the answer. Derived from DNA-authenticated 100 percent naturally grown northern European bilberry, Bilberon is naturally deep purple in color and contains a minimum of 36 percent anthocyanins.
Swaroop: Classical examples of this: During the height of the weight loss market propelled by TV shows—entire crops of garcinia were wiped out from Southeast Asia. During pandemic related demand for elderberry, the supplies were far short.
What if the demand continues to grow after the initial spike?
The garcinia harvest takes six months to grow in ideal conditions. If farmers replaced their regular crops with garcinia, what would happen to their food supply? Demand, pressure and resulting economic adulteration will diminish the demand for garcinia.
Industry organizations like ABC, are doing remarkable work in publishing data on botanical adulteration. Adopt the ABC – BAPP Best Practices SOP for the Disposal/Destruction of Irreparably Defective Articles.
Chioffi: Nammex grows mushrooms on natural substrate materials under seasonal conditions of temperature and humidity. We harvest, dry and store the mushrooms in clean controlled environments and guarantee the identity and lack of common extraction carrier materials. There are tests that will uncover adulterated mushroom products and we inform our prospective customers of these tests and what to look for when faced with a brown powder. At Nammex we believe that responsible suppliers should support their customers in verifying identity and quality, and help them with the tools to do so.
Brinckmann: In our experience, adulterated botanical ingredients have been avoided by practicing (1) relationship-based procurement, coupled with requiring (2) good agricultural and collection practices (GACPs) at the herb production bases, and (3) written quality specifications that are based on official pharmacopeial standards. Pharmacopeial quality specifications require scientifically valid tests to verify the composition, identify, quality, purity and strength of the botanical.
And, yes, specifying pharmacopeial quality herbs is more expensive than specifying food quality herbs, in terms of both the raw material costs and the additional analytical testing requirements. Of course, if a brand is motivated to “price buy” rather than to procure on the basis of rigorous quality standards and sustainable trade relationships, that brand will invite economically adulterated ingredients into their products.
Corporate sustainability and due diligence in supply chains also requires paying the fair price for assured quality, sustainability and visibility. Pande: Testing is one way to make sure about the quality of an ingredient. At times the standard testing is not sufficient to catch economical adulteration, as adulteration often deceives the regular test methods. American Botanical Council adulteration prevention program, or BAPP, is an excellent resource to understand the problems associated with testing material with economically motivated adulteration. These programs, test methods and processes have to be updated and revised to meet the newer challenges in quality analysis. Botanical finger printing using HPLC-MS is another form of testing which we employ to overcome the ID issues in botanical raw materials.
Lau: Know your vendors, know your herbal supply chain. Nuherbs has bought raw material from some of the same people for literally generations, which builds in a certain quality reliability. Look at it as a partnership and make sure everyone’s interest is aligned. As I get older, I appreciate everything about clarity, communication, and expectation setting more than ever. Will this get rid of the bad actors? No, but will it get rid of situations that can be avoided? Yes. Also, let’s put some onus on the buyers, if it looks too good to be true, then you really need an explanation why and how can a supplier provide this at such a great value?
NIE: What are the most popular botanicals in the U.S.? Has this changed in recent years and, if so, how?
Steely: Certainly, after the onset of COVID-19, there was a strong focus on immunity-supporting botanicals, including elderberry and echinacea. Over time, though, other botanicals took a stronger demand as consumers continued to look for supplements to support energy, stress, sleep, cognitive function, etc.—categories which have all been a focus/trend for several years—with less of a focus on immunity. Adaptogens such as ashwagandha have increased in demand and popularity since it impacts each of these areas (stress, cognition, energy). Mushrooms are increasing in popularity for their benefits in several of these categories as well.
Swaroop: My top-10 list for botanicals includes (in no particular order) turmeric, ashwagandha, elderberry, apple cider vinegar, ginger, fenugreek, echinacea, cranberry, green coffee and natural caffeine. The changing consumer demand has a direct effect on these. Last year it was immunity, and now it is cognitive health, stress and sleep.
Pande: In a list of most popular botanicals, the combination of Curcumin C3 Complex and BioPerine will be the topmost ingredient, simply from the fact that this combination has revolutionized the turmeric extract market. It is most clinically studied combination in the turmeric extract market. Turmeric has been definitely the top botanical used in supplements and has retained its position among consumers. With popularity and demand increase, the curcumin market also suffered quality issues with unknown generic material spiked with adulterants like “lead” and synthetic curcumin.
To overcome this challenge, Sabinsa initiated additional testing for turmeric extract and took every opportunity to generate awareness about the synthetic adulteration in curcumin. Today it’s important for consumers to understand the value and promise of high quality and safety that an ingredient brand brings to a product.
Levy: According to both University of Minnesota and Mt. Sinai Hospital researchers, garlic is one of the top 10 most popular botanical medicines among consumers in the U.S. This popularity is well founded, as cited in a recent study that appeared in JAMA which included garlic among the best herbs for reducing the risk of heart disease. Garlic was also highlighted in a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology that discussed its multiple cardiovascular benefits.
Petrie: What has changed is that consumers have become more aware of what’s out there. No longer is Gingko biloba the go-to nootropic—now there’s brahmi (Bacopa monnieri), gotu kola, ashwagandha, resveratrol and many others. In some ways, it’s like a tile store—there are just too many good choices! And to this we can add vinpocetine, phosphatidylserine and DHA (microalgae-derived) for extra brain power!
Eng: In general, adaptogens are surging in consumer recognition and demand. Herbs that balance and encourage the physiological adaptation to achieve that balance make tremendous sense to sustain improved well-being.
Ashwagandha is perhaps the best known adaptogen, and the Herb Market Report showed that this ayurvedic herb had the highest sales growth for the second consecutive year in 2020 and 2021.
The success of ashwagandha has widened the spotlight for other adaptogens. For example, sales of LJ100 Tongkat Ali are also on the rise, as it has been shown to have adaptogenic benefit along with promoting favorable anabolic balance in men and women, which is a health value that ashwagandha lacks.
NIE: What innovations in botanical extraction, formulating, manufacturing or delivery forms are you most excited about, and why?
Lau: I am really digging all the innovation about new delivery forms and that some of them allow for a lot bigger dosage. I am also extremely excited about low-dosage forms because it allows me to really dig into product innovation through Nuherbs Bespoke Extracts program. Our ultra-customization capabilities allow us to produce an ingredient or product tailored for our customers use case, and a lot of this is fascinatingly innovative.
Kilham: More sophisticated use of different methods of extraction for different botanicals is becoming more widely appreciated. Extraction is like food preparation. You don’t boil toast, and you don’t fry pasta sauce. You use methods that maximize yield for the botanical. So CO2 extraction for oily and resinous herbs, alcohol and water for water-soluble compounds, and water-only for botanicals for which that is best suited. As far as delivery forms go, I am waiting for gummies to fade. They may be enjoyable candy but you can’t provide efficacious doses of most botanicals in a gummy. Tablets, capsules and liquids are still the best dosage forms.
Levy: Wakunaga’s story of innovation began in 1955 when Japanese banker Manji Wakunaga and German physician Eugene Schnell teamed up to develop and truthfully market a unique Aged Garlic Extract (AGE) designed to help Japanese people regain their health in the years after World War II. Today, Wakunaga of America continues to create a wide variety of health-promoting supplements for people around the world using the same exclusive process for creating AGE which was first developed by these two visionaries.
Eng: Our innovations that stand out are scientific blends to create unique, science-supported condition-specific compounds. For example, our first such blend, CitruSlim is a combination of Bergamonte bergamot and LJ100 Tongkat Ali, with several studies demonstrating its ability to help promote fat burning and weight loss, increase energy and promote healthy satiety.
Our first foray into women’s health, Nu-Femme, is a combination of LJ100 with (SLP+) Labisia pumila. A human study demonstrated that this blend helps menopausal women to experience fewer hot flashes, and also improve their hormone and lipid profiles.
Bergacyn is a blend of Bergamonte bergamot and Italian wild artichoke thistle. Two published human clinicals have shown that this herbal blend supports liver structure by addressing fats, and thus increasing efficacy of liver function.
Swaroop: I am most excited about precision fermentation, biocatalysis and biotransformation in botanical manufacturing. Using these technologies, nature-identical ingredients can be produced sustainably, efficiently and reliably. We can reduce dependence on natural resources and avoid pesticides, environmental footprint, climate, political instability and global pandemics issues.
In formulations, I am witnessing a revolution in taste-masking and solubility improvements to help manage the lifecycle of herbal products. A drive towards lowering the dosage with more concentrated herbs is also prominent.
Nair: Sempera’s extraction process itself is an exciting innovation—based in green chemistry using vegan enzymes, we have a safe and efficient process resulting in high bioactive concentration in a clean-label product. We are also excited about the ability to provide mushroom ingredients suitable for gummies, soft gels, beverages and similar wet applications. Mushrooms are experiencing strong growth, and we want to enable manufacturers to incorporate these amazing ingredients in a broad set of delivery systems so that consumers enjoy the benefits no matter what format they use.
Petrie: I would have to say liposomal delivery systems that allow for botanicals to survive the digestive tract and get more effectively delivered to your tissues! It’s worked for ascorbic acid; it can work for turmeric and other botanical products.
NIE: What is your personal herbal wellness routine?
Chioffi: I take herbs and mushrooms supplementally as needed and rely on other practices that cultivate my mental and physical well-being. I try to make my food my medicine and my medicine my food, as said by Hippocrates. When I do take herbs I always have spearmint and peppermint tea from my garden on hand. If we can consider Coffea arabica an “herbal” my pour over has been receiving a healthy dose of Organic Lions Mane Mushroom extract lately and it makes me feel “wicked smart,” as my Boston friends say.
Swaroop: Ashwagandha for sleep, green coffee and olive extract for sustained energy, celastrus and bacopa for brain boost, and daily vitamin D. Steely: Plant-based protein powder in a smoothie for an additional daily protein source, turmeric root extract based on benefits for inflammatory pathways but also due to research around benefits for long-term cognitive health, ashwagandha for adaptogenic benefits/stress and cognitive support, lutein/lycopene for vision support.
Brinckmann: I try to walk every day, project positive thoughts about my children and grandchildren, and avoid packaged food and animal products in my diet. I use medicinal plants sparingly, when needed for specific purposes. To treat seasonal conditions, I generally rely on certain traditional Chinese medicine formulations that I have found to be effective. And, I think I have had Traditional Medicinals’ Throat Coat herbal tea in my cupboard without interruption since the 1970s!
Lau: I’m the grandson of Doctor Bing Yin Lee, one of the first female graduates in medicine from the Chinese Medical Institute of Shanghai. My parents were the second generation to work in the family TCM herb business and I obviously grew up with Chinese herbs as a primary health care system. Teas with specific health benefits are common in TCM, and some of my favorites are Chinese ginseng, schisandra, tea and coffee. And as the father of two toddlers, I go through a lot of adaptogens! NIE