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The Quality of Natural Products

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In the U.S., reports emerge periodically indicating that herbal products are not to be trusted. When products have been tested from American chain drug stores, such as CVS, they are sometimes found to contain far less, if any of the labelled ingredients. These reports tend to cast a rather cynical shadow across the industry as a whole, but this is altogether mistaken. There are many companies in the natural products sector competing for market share and industry respect.  One way this is done is by incorporating advanced technologies and methods to ensure the quality and character of their end product. Ingredients that are particularly hot in the marketplace, such as curcumin (derived from turmeric), have companies virtually tumbling over each other to create ever more absorbable forms or cutting-edge formulations.

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In the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to visit two herbal/natural product research laboratories and several natural product manufacturing facilities, representing three different companies. On another occasion, I sat and spoke with the scientific staff of a fourth natural product manufacturing company about their technologies. These experiences were impressive and I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned, so that you may better understand the righteous origins of the products you use.

Stores that specialize in natural products tend to attract label readers and that’s a good thing, but you have to know what to look for on the label. It may be that we innocently presume the product's integrity, but that is not always warranted. There is much that we are taking on faith unless we know the origin of the ingredients or their character.  

One of the big points for me when I look at labels is if the product is designed in a way to deliver what it offers. For instance, are the dosages of the individual ingredients adequate? Plenty of companies, sometimes even professional ones, tend to blend into a single product a great number of ingredients where there is only a very, very small amount of each.  The long list looks impressive on the label, but diminishes the action of each individual ingredient to such an extent that it may be inadequate for achieving the therapeutic aim of the product. Also, when there are many plant ingredients in a formula, the question of quality and reliability of the ingredients is compounded.

The art of reading labels is an article in itself, but I digress. Let’s talk about how quality companies operate in this arena of natural product manufacture.

Natural products manufacturing begins with the research that stands behind the ingredient or formulation. This may be university or laboratory research and if it is credible research will often be published in a professional journal. These can often be found at pubmed.gov, the public medical research data base. This research establishes the scientific basis for the use of a given substance. Some natural product companies have their own research arms and others develop research relationships with universities in order to advance the knowledge about a product or ingredient.

One company whose labs I’ve toured, and whose products I use personally and with my patients, has an enormous library of about twenty thousand medicinal plants. They apply genomics - meaning that they test the plant extracts to see exactly which genes are downregulated or upregulated. Since the genes code for proteins, they also use proteomics in order to assess which specific proteins are generated by a given plant compound.  The combination of genomics and proteomics allows their products to have a high level of design intelligence. They now have around 200 patents as a result of this effort.

When a manufacturer uses any given substance, such as plant material, it has to be sourced from a reputable supplier. Some companies actually maintain their own farms in order to acheive a higher level of source control for some of their most significant ingredients.  Quality natural product companies will then test the plant materials through High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) and sometimes other analytical techniques such as High-performance thin-layer chromatography or Gas Chromatography. These techniques allow the company to confirm the identity of the materials, the presence and strength of its bioactive components, and the presence of any contaminants such as heavy metals, bacteria, pesticides, etc. The same company that uses genomics and proteomics, also utilizes proton NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) which allows very high sensitivity analysis of the chemical structure of the many components of a given plant.  

Once the purity of the raw materials is established the process of manufacture begins. Herbal products generally go through standardization procedures the ensure that the bioactive principles, which may be uneven from plant to plant, are concentrated and equalized throughout the material used in manufacture. Some herbs may be processed into tincture, as well as liquid or solid extracts. Since some potent herbal elements are poorly absorbed, there are a variety of processes that may be applied, such as bonding the plant's molecules with a carrier molecule such as a fat or a protein, that facilitates passage across the intestinal lumen or improves cellular uptake. Sometimes other herbal ingredients are added that are known to improve nutrient absorption. For instance the piperine of black pepper improves the absorption of curcumin by as much as 2000%!

The manufacturing plants where natural products are put into their final form for the end user are a marvel of modern technology. The environment in the facility utilizes advanced air-flow technologies to ensure a minimum of airborne particulates. Workers wear protective clothing from top to toe to minimize unwanted particles from their body or outside environments. Even the capsules purchased from third party suppliers are tested to confirm their purity.

Ingredients are blended in very large drums to make sure that there is uniformity in every tablet and capsule. The machinery that creates tablets and capsulated products is highly sophisticated and fast. Once a tablet or capsule is created it passes through a device that can detect the slightest amount of metal components that may have entered in the capsulating/tabletting process and remove it from the line. Next the container of tablets or capsules enters the packaging and labelling section to be put into its final form. Finally, random samples of the finished packaged product are batch tested to detect any contamination that might have occurred in the manufacturing process.  Of course, the machinery is regularly cleaned and sterilized.

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So, rest assured that in our modern era, committed natural products companies utilize the best of science and technology to ensure that the products you take are of high quality, purity and efficacy.  

Choice, Fate and Aging