Guaranteed Actives Levels in Herbal Products
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Linda M. Kilmer, M.L.T., C.H.
Posted on: September 12, 1999

I am a newly certified Chartered Herbalist and I am looking for a distributor of medicinal herbs that market their products with a "guaranteed active ingredient level". I know that there are some companies that do. Is Richters one of them? I am very disappointed in the drug store brands that are available. I would appreciate any help that you can give me.

The question of active ingredients in herbal products and bulk botanicals is a serious problem for the herb industry, and for consumers and practitioners. There are widely divergent opinions on the importance of actives levels in herbs.

With good reason, there are many herbalists who say that the herbal industry’s recent emphasis on actives levels is misleading, and even potentially dangerous. There is no question that industry, and to a slightly lesser extent, government has moved to using actives levels (documented by "Certificates of Chemical Analysis" from a laboratory) as the main measure of quality for bulk botanicals and prepared herbal products. The trouble is that many of the so-called "active components" may not have anything at all to do with the medicinal action of the herbs they are found in. Potent examples are St. Johnswort (Hypericum perfoliatum), echinacea, and feverfew, and there are many more.

Consider St Johnswort: it is now believed that hypericin has nothing to do with the anti-depressant effect of the herb. Yet, hypericin levels are the main measure that industry buyers use to judge the quality of raw St Johnswort herb. In feverfew, few believe that parthenolides have anything to do with the herb’s anti-migraine effect; yet, unless you have 0.2% parthenolides in your feverfew product you cannot sell it in Canada for migraine. The same is true for many other herbs, including ginseng, and echinacea, where the purported active compound may have nothing to do with the product’s medicinal potency.

The emphasis on actives levels could even be dangerous. For example, parthenolides in feverfew are highly labile and are easily lost during harvest or post-harvest processing. Because industry and government have set minimums for parthenolide levels in feverfew, processors are concentrating extracts in an effort to boost parthenolide levels to meet industry standards. But if the still unknown true medicinal components happen to be less labile as parthenolides, then the concentrated extracts could have a medicinal effect several to many times more potent than intended – and there is no way for the practitioner or consumer to know that from the packaging.

On the other hand, there is a long history of abuses and errors in the herb trade. Inferior herbs and misidentified herbs have been foisted on the public innumerable times in the past. Pressure for quality standards is ever increasing, with good reason.

Herbalists who have thought through the dilemma of using actives levels for judging quality are beginning to discount the importance of actives, and are returning to more traditional methods of judging quality. Traditional organoleptic assessments, such as colour, taste, odour, are coming back. Traditional microscopic and macroscopic tests, simple chemical tests such as ash, moisture and extractives content are still important.

In addition, herbalists are increasingly asking about the methods with which herbs are collected or grown, and how they are processed and stored. For example, many people are turning away from herbs that were sterilized using deadly fumigants or irraditation to remove bacterial or insect contaminants. If the herbs are grown, harvested, processed and stored with care, there is little need for routine fumigation. Fumigation is an essential requirement in large factories that do not have the expertise or mindset to avoid contamination in the first place.

In the case of Richters bulk dried herbs, all of them are from organic or wildcrafted sources, and processed with care. You will not find pale yellow catnip at Richters like you will at so many other dried herbs vendors – Richters catnip is green and aromatic. Richters does not fumigate its herbs because the herbs are clean to begin with. And Richters relies on its "quality in, quality out" philosophy to make sure that its customers always get top quality. Richters believes that quality cannot be reduced to a simple number.

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