How-To: Choosing High Quality Herbs

Learn how to choose the right herb, in the right preparation, and the right dose, and, most importantly, the right quality.

High quality home-grown herbs
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Herbal remedies can work far better than you might think. They can be dramatic, rapid, dynamic and certainly effective. But - and it’s a big but - you must choose the right herb, in the right preparation, and the right dose, and, most importantly, the right quality.

Herbs are dietary supplements, and, as such, are strictly regulated by the FDA, which determines good manufacturing practices, safety, labeling and package instructions. However, herbs are treated more like food in that the government does not dictate the actual quality of the ingredients, which can vary. Think about it. Do you really know how much vitamin A is in that carrot from Safeway? And is it the same dose per carrot as last week’s batch? With medications, this is not an issue, because each and every pill contains only one chemical - the drug - and the dose is identical from batch to batch.

The quality of any given herbal product will depend on many factors, including the plant variety, growing conditions, soil composition, climate, harvesting and manufacture of the final product, etc. Experienced professionals in the herb industry are well educated about these factors, and use everything from smell and taste to complex laboratory testing to assess quality. Since herb quality is such a multifaceted matter, you’ll probably find the best quality herbal remedies at an herb pharmacy, rather than the corner health food store. More about that in a moment…

 

The Right Preparation

There are a number of forms in which herbs can be used, and several common ways to prepare them. There is no one best way - the “ideal” form and preparation varies from herb to herb, as well as from person to person.

Some herbs are almost equally effective and beneficial in a variety of forms, while others have one recognized best preparation and the other forms are adequate but not nearly as good. Still others may have one and only one way they can be effectively used.

When I say “best” I mean it is the top way to get the most active ingredient out of the herb. However, in some cases the “best” preparation or form may be the only way to safely use the herb. For example, stinging nettles are only used dried, so that they no longer sting. Some active ingredients are more soluble in alcohol than water, and these herbs are best taken as a tincture. Some herbs are more soluble in water, milk, or oil. Some are not soluble in liquid at all and must be dried and powdered.

Another consideration in determining “best” form is whether the herb is weak or very potent. Herbs that are mild are best brewed as tea, not only because their mildness makes them inherently drinkable, but also because you’d have to put so much of a mild herb into capsules that you would be faced with a possibly prohibitive number of pills to swallow. With such herbs, it may be easier to brew the tea strong to reduce the amount of total liquid consumed. On the other hand, very strong herbs may be too bitter, astringent or just plain awful-tasting to consume as tea, and if an herb is so strong that only a few capsules will do the trick, why go to the trouble of making tea? 

Bulk, dried, chopped herbs for tea should look vibrant, have deep color and a noticeably strong smell. Ask the vendor to show you the best quality products and become educated.

 

Avoid Standardized Extracts

It is important to make a distinction between standardized extracts and traditional whole herb preparations that have been validated by centuries of usage. A traditional preparation, such as tincture, tea or powder contains all or most of the whole herb’s active constituents in proportions that have been proven effective. It is a way to get everything the whole herb has to offer, in a convenient form. The standardized extract, on the other hand, may contain only one or a few of what is presumed to be the herb’s “active” ingredients, with supposedly “inert” ingredients removed.

The kicker is that many active constituents in whole herbs were at one time believed to be inert, even after research had been conducted. Plant chemicals in Echinacea once believed to be inactive are now considered key active constituents. There are herbs whose active ingredients still have not been identified. And herbs consistently show more activity when the whole herb is used than when isolated ingredients are applied.

Since professional herbalists are not complaining about batch quality variation, we can see that it is just not an issue with whole herbs. Standardization guarantees one aspect of consistency, but overall does very little to solve the problem of the supposed ups-and-downs in batch quality. It’s solving a problem that does not need solving. In a few rare cases, such as ginkgo, where the actives are well established, there might be an advantage to standardizing.

 

Use an Herb Pharmacy

Herb pharmacies are similar to the apothecaries that were everywhere at the turn of the century. At that time, these apothecaries were the pharmacies and dispensed an enormous range of herbal medicines in every possible form. Now, herb pharmacies are making a bit of a comeback, although they are still rare to come by. To good news is, many of then now sell online.

When you locate a good herb pharmacy, you’ll likely find yourself in one of two kinds: American or Chinese. Contemporary American herb pharmacies sell mostly bulk “Western” herbs from Europe and North America, plus an assortment of tinctures, tablets and lotions, with a small section of herbs from other continents. Chinese herb pharmacies have been here for centuries, have long catered to expat Asian populations, and have an enormous selection of bulk herbs intended to be used in mixed formula teas. These are great resources if you know exactly what you want and communicate it. Don’t be surprised if you encounter language problems. You will find Ayurvedic herbs, which are much more recent additions to the marketplace, in a smaller assortment, online, or mixed in with Western herbs at the herb pharmacy.

Herb pharmacies make a much higher grade of herb available to the consumer. Herbs are graded after harvesting, and the highest quality (a small percentage) go to professional herbalists and herb pharmacies. The majority, the bottom percentage, goes to health food markets and the quality is often mediocre. This doesn’t mean that health food store herbs will hurt you, or that theoretically, you could not find some high quality herbs there; they just may not help you as much or as quickly, because the potency may not be as high. This may mean taking more to get the same effect, which is costlier in the long run. In the short run, herbs from an herb pharmacy will cost you a little more, but you will likely get significantly more active ingredient in the herb, due to much higher quality. Remember though that price does not guarantee quality. Oftentimes that premium price covers fancy labels and over-the-top marketing campaigns.

Another advantage of herb pharmacies is that they are generally run, owned and staffed by professional herbalists. They are better able to educate you and answer your questions. These shops generally sell only herbs, so you know they are specialists and that all of their attention is focused on the herbs. In a health food store, herbs are usually a very tiny portion of their products and revenue, and they get lost in the shuffle. Very rarely is someone at a health food store really knowledgeable about the herbs they’re selling.

Whether you go to an herb pharmacy or health food store, the job of the sales representatives is to sell you something. Your job is to get what you are there for and find the best quality. At health food stores, the clerks generally cannot give you an adequate response to what might be ailing you. Apologies to those who actually can - they do exist - but experience shows that this is not the average response.

This is less of a problem at herb pharmacies than health food stores, but even there, the professional herbalist who owns and manages the store may not staff the cash register. You should not be obtaining health advice from a cashier.

The fact is that no one, even if they are very knowledgeable and qualified when it comes to herbs, can make an appropriate assessment in the two minutes they talk to you. It is never a good idea to go into a health food store or even an herb pharmacy and say “What do you have for xyz condition?” You should determine which herbs are best for you with the help of a qualified herbalist or other natural health practitioner, or through your own thorough and intensive study. Know what you are looking for and don’t be swayed by the recommendations of clerks, unless you know them well and trust their judgment.

Herbal professionals can help educate you, so seek them out. And just where do we find these professionals? Look for credentials from the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA), the American Herbalists Guild (AHG) and the National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP).

 

Ask and Learn

Since you, the customer, are not an expert in herb farming, wildcrafting or dietary supplement manufacturing, you need to become at least an educated consumer. Read information about herb quality written by herbalists who are widely recognized experts in their field. Inquire with NAMA and AHG about where to find reliable quality information. Then ask the manufacturer how they guarantee the effectiveness of their products. This information needs to line up. Press on until you dig through the marketing hype and you can hear the right answers to your questions about harvesting methods, product freshness and factory material handling.

Since you will only get the results you expect, spend time asking questions and finding the right herbs before you buy. Remember, that herb is in the bottle today, but it’s part of your body tomorrow!

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