Herbal Hype: Product Safety, Efficacy, and Plant Protection

The world wide industry for selling herbs and herbal preparations has seen sustained growth throughout the centuries as humans have become more of a globally connected species, and scientific advances allow for the isolation and study of plant compounds as well as the ability to cultivate and/or import exotic plants from around the world. The juxtaposition we see in our current time is that, while herbal medicine piques the curiosity of the mainstream, inspiring gentle approaches to healing and respect for intricacies found in nature, it simultaneously is being overrun by opportunists whom care more about making a quick dollar than they do for how helpful or harmful their product could be for its intended user or the environment itself.

When increasingly larger corporations step in to cash-in on some herbal supplement or “superfood” product hype, it can come at the cost of quality control in how the material is sourced and manufactured. Products that rely on natural resources should have a responsibility to protect the indigenous people and landscapes from whence their materials come, or should support resilient farming practices to cultivate their medicinals – thus preventing over harvesting of wild populations. When there is no connection to the environment or ethical considerations within the supply chain, suddenly this “healthy” and “natural” supplement which sits before you really isn’t so healthy or natural. Lack of conscientious practices in this type of business creates threatened or endangered botanical species, and takes advantage of local populations of both humans and wildlife which rely on these plants for their own survival.

Many have seen news reports that surface semi-frequently about herbal products in the mass-market supply chain that may be contaminated with things such as lead or arsenic, or contain ingredients not disclosed on the label – such as ginseng getting cut with other plant materials, essentially diluting the potency while inflating the price. When these substances are then sold to unsuspecting customers, if it doesn’t harm them out right it at least furthers the assumption that natural methods and herbal remedies are merely “snake oil”, even in the face of what clinical research is being done on natural remedies all over the world.

All of that being said, there are amazing herbal companies out there that are dedicated to higher standards when formulating their products, they stand by their product’s effectiveness and purity of ingredients, and they are invested in protecting the lands and plants that they use. So with that in mind, here are a few things to consider before buying herbal products:

Who made the product?
Is it from a company with a reliable reputation? Are they transparent with information about their quality standards and production practices? Do they do any purity testing and have a product guarantee? Do they know the farmers they are sourcing from, and is it a fair relationship? If sourcing from a local medicine maker, do they know the source of their plant materials?

How were the plants sourced?
If it was farmed, where and how was it grown? What is the likelihood there are pesticides or other possible contaminates in the product? Is it a wild plant? If so, where does it grow? How far did it have to travel to get to you? Was it harvested properly, with respect to the local communities and biodiversity? Is it local? Do you know the grower? How was it harvested, handled and processed?

Does the product contain any At-Risk plants?
Many medicinal plants we’ve come to use heavily are considered “at risk” in the wild, including many that are native here to the Appalachians – Ginseng, Black Cohosh, and Bloodroot to name a few… You can review a list maintained by United Plant Savers to see more plants named, all of which you should be especially mindful about sourcing –  https://unitedplantsavers.org/species-at-risk-list/

What is the cost of the product?
Quality of herbal products is incredibly important for your safety as well as ecological concerns. While price is not always a surefire indicator of quality, it is at least worth noting that if you find a bottle of something at a mass-market store for half the price or less of something similar sold from reputable, curated, independent company, or made by a local herbalist who grows and harvests their own herbs, you are very much getting what you pay for.

Why are you using the product?
Do not simply jump on the next ‘Dr.-Whoever’ recommended trendy supplement. Do your own homework! Ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” – Do you understand the way in which the product is meant to support your health? Or how much of it you need? Is there a long list of ingredients in the formula which you don’t recognize? Are there any known adverse reactions to any of the ingredients? Is there a more sustainable source for the ingredients than brand “X” or “Y” is providing? Is there an alternative product which may support your health in similar ways, which is better formulated and more ethically sourced and produced, which you can use instead?

With knowledge comes great power and great responsibility. As we’ve started to pay more attention to what we put into our bodies, making sure things are what they say they are, and that they come from clean and safe sources, we have seen the fringe “organic” movement even creep its way into the giant shopping centers. But this level of public conscientiousness is still just in its infancy, the dialog must continue, and we must encourage further awareness in order to continue advancing the care that is taken and invested in what we consume.

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