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Looking East


Once considered a niche market, demand for herbs from Asia will grow as new research continues to report their benefits.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) defines health as body integrity, adaptability, continuity and balance with the doctor prescribing traditional plant, animal and mineral remedies to sustain a self-regulatory status in the body (a balance of yin and yang). This contrasts with Western medicine in which health is defined as the absence of disease symptoms and the doctor diagnoses and prescribes clinically tested medicines to eradicate disease.

For suppliers of Asian herbs, the market may be seen as broken down by the traditional, and a more Western approach.

Brien Quirk, director of research and development with Draco Natural Products (San Jose, CA), said the market for Asian Herbs exists in two main areas: 1) Herbs used for common applications in the Western market as stand-alone ingredients or with other similar ingredients; 2) Traditional Asian herbal formulas (i.e., traditional Chinese medicine, kampo, ayurvedic, traditional Korean herbal medicine, etc.).

“In the first category, common Asian herbs that have come to the West as stand-alone ingredients include ginkgo biloba, dong quai, green tea, epimedium (horny goat weed), goji berries, red yeast rice and many others,” Quirk said. “Some of the herbs have sales that are continuing to grow quite strongly such as red yeast rice and goji berries because people see results with these. Dong quai is commonly used in women’s formulas. Epimedium, dodder seed, cornus, cistanche, curculigo and red Asian ginseng are commonly used as components of libido formulas.”

Quirk added that traditional Asian herbal formulas include rehmannia 8 for blood sugar support, ahosaikoto for liver health, bi yan pian for allergies and yin qiao san for colds. “These are also growing very strong since some of these have entered into the mass market. A good example is bi yan pian being sold at grocery stores.”

“The asian herbs category is a huge group that includes well known herbal staples like ginseng and gingko biloba; superfruits such as goji, mangosteen and yumberry; and the vast wealth of botanicals that have long been the basis of ayurvedic and TCM, such as schisandra, bacopa monniera (brahmi), moringa, amla and ashwagandha,” said Marina Linsley, marketing director with the Rancho Dominguez, CA-based NP Nutra. “As the benefits of these Ancient traditional medicine systems have become more widely known in the West, so too have the herbs that form an integral part of the Eastern pharmacopeia. At NP Nutra, we are seeing strong demand for these types of ingredients; in fact, in recent months we have seen strong interest in schisandra, an Asian herb renowned as a potent adaptogen, and in moringa and amla.”

Quality Science

Asian herbs are currently being widely studied for therapeutic benefits, and there already exists a vast amount of science on a wide range of these herbs with the majority being Chinese herbs. “There are many human clinical studies, as well as animal and pharmacological studies,” said Quirk. “An example of a new herb to the market is lion’s mane mushroom, which has both a human clinical study for Memory/cognitive function and mood. There was also a good study on red yeast rice showing that patients who had been intolerant to statin drugs for cholesterol were actually able to tolerate the red yeast rice without similar side effects. This study was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.”
Additional studies have been done on Rhodiola crenulata and sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides), which were tested in human subjects for high altitude exercise performance in low oxygen conditions with great results. A human clinical was conducted on two different kampo medicines, jidabokuippo and hachimijiogan, for alleviating sprains, bruises and arthritis symptoms.

Chris Kilham, aka the Medicine Hunter, noted that Asian nations invest a lot in botanical agriculture, analytical science and clinical studies on the health effects of plant-based traditional remedies. “Across Asia, more than 10,000 plants are in use as medicines. Many of these plants have been used For hundreds or even thousands of years. The research conducted in other countries is often every bit as good as that of the U.S. And since Asian nations invest in botanical science as a key aspect of human health care, this is a sector with very talented people. New science emerges on a weekly basis. This is a big time for science on medicinal plants.”

In Pursuit of Good Sourcing

Asian herbs are grown in a variety of conditions across the entire Asian continent, from China to India to Thailand and beyond, so there are huge logistical obstacles to overcome with regards to imports and exports, regulations, language barriers, etc. But Linsley noted that most of the recent sourcing difficulties have centered on the quality and safety issues with products in the China supply chain.

Quirk argued that there are really no obstacles if the herbs are well known in traditional herbal medicine use or were commonly used as foods in Asia. “However, one must be sure to use a supplier that they can trust for quality testing and proper botanical identification,” he noted. “It is also a good idea to make sure that extracts are tested for marker compounds to ensure that the bioactives will be present for efficacy. With less well-known herbs that someone wants to try to source, there may be obstacles with importation especially if it has never been imported or sold as a dietary supplement in The U.S. A dossier on its background, safety and use is vital, and we try to help compile this for our customers. It would also be required to submit an NDI (new dietary ingredient) notice to FDA 75 days before it is marketed.”

Kilham agreed that having the right connections for sourcing these herbs is invaluable in a search that can be complicated. “It’s easy to be misled when you don’t know a place. People who trade in botanicals may turn out to be your best guides in Asian nations, if you are really serious about knowing the market. Every aspect of trade applies, from issues of sustainability and wages, to abundance or scarcity of a particular plant, whether it’s wild-harvested or cultivated. In sourcing, you have to go very deep into things. That’s why certain people devote much of their lives to this pursuit.”

Herbal Forms

For manufacturing, which composition— extracts, oils, whole herbs, etc.—is preferred for particular herbs? “The herb determines the form,” answered Kilham. “In some cases, like with schisandra berry, simply consuming whole herbs may be sufficient enough to produce healing benefits. In other cases, a concentrated extract of a plant is the best way to go. In general, I favor extracts.”

Kilham, who performs a great deal of his work on behalf of Naturex (South Hackensack, NJ), said he is very familiar with botanical extraction around the world and has seen Asian countries producing essential oils. “I was in northwestern China and saw lavender cultivation for a nearby distillery,” he said. “Asians are using botanicals in all forms, and are making those forms increasingly available to the world market.”

For herbs with important functions that are well established, it is a good idea to use standardized extracts, said Quirk. “In the case of herbal extracts such as ginkgo biloba for memory, schisandra for liver function, ginseng for energy, andrographis for immune function and rhodiola for mood, they need to be standardized as extracts to known levels of actives so the proper dosages are used.”

Herb oils are good for healing the skin. An example is the reddish purple arnebia oil and sea buckthorn oil for wound healing and skin health. Pomegranate seed oil helps to concentrate the conjugated linolenic acid to levels as high as 70 percent that occur in the seed portion. “There are fewer examples of where whole herbs are Preferred with the best example being freeze-dried nettle leaves for allergies,” Quirk added.

But at NP Nutra, Linsley said interest centers around dried, powdered whole herbs. “Herbs have been dried and processed as part of Asian herbal pharmacopeia for thousands for years and this is still the most popular form. We also manufacture several botanical extracts, according to customer requirements, such as astragalus 10:1 and bitter melon 10 percent.”

Quality Assurance

All herbal ingredients must be tested for identity, heavy metals, pesticide residue, microbes and active ingredients. GMP regulations have improved the quality of many Asian herbs coming to market, but have also raised the cost, something that consumers are still getting used to, suppliers agreed.

“The purity shows that the herb is free of contaminants or adulterants known to be an issue for a specific herb, so it is vital to have background and expertise about the issues or dangers of contamination for a particular herb,” Quirk said. “Some herbs require testing for fungal toxins known as mycotoxins. The mycotoxins citrinin and ochratoxin, which are linked to cell damage and cancer, are important components that need to be tested in some herbs. Ochratoxin is sometimes found in ginger and citrinin can be found in red yeast rice.”

Herbs need to be tested for authenticity to ensure that you have the right herb in the first place, Kilham added. “You also need to test for bacteria, yeast, molds, fungus, pesticide residues and heavy metals. You want to test for potency, as this can vary batch- to-batch and field-to-field. GMPs make a difference—they cause more people to comply with better regulations, and they cause a few crooked ones to get increasingly clever in their deceptions.”

Changing Trends

According to Quirk, there has been mostly a niche market for traditional Asian herbs and formulas. “People who have read of the benefits of acupuncture and Chinese herbs, or gone to TCM clinics themselves have a greater awareness and willingness to use them. This will only continue to grow as the consumers in the U.S.Realize that Asian herbs have a very long history of use and, in balanced formulas, may be safer and more effective to use than stand alone herbs since they work to balance the body’s systems and bring about healing through multiple actions.” An increase in funding of clinical studies of Chinese herbs and formulas, however, will translate into greater recognition of the benefits.

Kilham pointed to the power of consumer trends and interest in exotic “new” ingredients, even in regards to Asian herbs. “From what I observe, the Asian nations will try to get in on the trade of any successful plant in the market if they can grow it. Asian agricultural experts devote entire careers to this type of cultivation, including high-tech cloning. Media moves consumer knowledge. Whatever is getting attention, whether it is curcumin or horny goat weed, that is what people will be trying. Plus, people love to be ‘let in on’ secrets, so if a new Asian ‘secret’ herb comes out, it has mystique. This can be a powerful factor in the market.”

Asian Futures

The international herbal market is dynamic with a lot of money pouring Through it, perhaps as much as $100 billion per year, according to Kilham.

“Because of this, there is tremendous need for supply. Look at Korea’s position in the ginseng trade—Korea supplies a huge amount of ginseng to the global market. China is supplying most of the rhodiola on the market at present,” he said. “Traditional Chinese remedies, as well as traditional ayurvedic remedies from India, account for a huge volume of herbal health products. Asia holds a powerful position in the global herbal market.”

Suppliers will continue to be concerned with providing herbs that are sustainable and free of contaminants.

“Weather events have had a significant impact on this category. For example, the October 2010 drought in Yunnan province caused a heavy decline in the production of herbs,” said Linsley. “Yunnan province is responsible for about 80 percent of the natural ingredients used in TCM. Other major natural events such as earthquakes, floods and cold snaps have also had an impact on supply.” NP Nutra’s focus for 2011 is to continue increasing its commitment toward sustainable organic farming, production and supply.

Quirk also noted shortages of herbs in some instances due to bad weather in China. “But this is only a short-term problem that gets resolved by the next season,” he said. “With the Japanese nuclear issue there have been concerns about contamination, but extensive testing was conducted by the Japanese and Chinese governments to assure there aren’t any problems.”

However, contamination by both dangerous pesticides and pharmacuetical drugs has set back Asian producers and exporters, said Kilham. “But the world market is hungry for herbs, and Asia is able to supply many hundreds of the most popular botanicals in use today. To the point, Asia has a very strong position in the world botanical market.”

Non-GMO Project