By Matt Warnock, CEO RidgeCrest Herbals

Any live plant is a chemical factory. Green plants grow by chemical processes, using sunlight for energy, and taking water, carbon, and mineral elements from the soil, and turning carbon dioxide into free oxygen. A lot of this chemical energy is used in building glucose molecules, the simple sugars that are the fundamental building blocks for cellulose, the material that makes up the rigid cell walls of plants. Cellulose is common to many plants, and may make up about a third of all plant matter, while other chemicals are unique to a particular family of plants, like citrus, or even unique to a single species, like tangerine. When using herbs as medicine, it is these combinations of unique chemicals that we rely on for their therapeutic effects. We don't rely on the water or the cellulose, both of which we get in large amounts in our regular diet. But as important as cellulose is to digestive health, it is these other unique compounds that deliver the goods in herbal medicine.

Traditionally, herbs were used fresh where possible, and that is still the best way to use them. But it isn't very convenient. Many herbs can only be grown in a particular environment, and if you live outside that environment, then growing isn't really an option for you. Fresh herbs are often seasonal as well, so you can't get them year-round. Fresh herbs will wilt unless used very quickly, and if not properly managed, they can even spoil and make you sick. For most people, anything more than a small pot of fresh chives, parsley and/or basil in a windowsill is really more herb farming than they really want to take on.

Dried herbs are much easier to transport, store and use, and when dried properly, are very nearly as potent as fresh herbs. Dried herbs have been used for thousands of years, so their characteristics are very well-known. Dried herbs can be stored for many years if kept out of sunlight, cool, and dry, especially in an airtight container. Dried herbs are generally cut and sifted, milled or powdered before use so they can be sprinkled on food or used in teas, tablets, or capsules. Once powdered, it is more difficult (but not impossible) to assess the quality of the original herb, and crooked vendors may try to pad their wallets by diluting expensive herbs with inexpensive powders like cellulose or maltodextrin. When buying any powdered herb, stick to well-known and reputable suppliers, and do your homework. Sometimes even reputable and knowledgeable suppliers have been known to fall for this old trick.

Many herbs contain chemicals that are not very soluble in water, but are more soluble in alcohol, oil, or other liquids, so many other fluids have been used for extraction. More recently, “supercritical fluid extraction (SFE) has used gases like carbon dioxide to extract chemicals at high pressures but lower temperatures and at faster speeds than conventional methods. One of the difficulties with extraction is that there is no standardized extraction process. For example, a “4:1” herbal extract supposedly means that 4 kilograms of input herbal material were used for every 1 kilogram of extract produced. But small changes in the inputs or the process can produce huge changes in the extract. For example, if you boil a cup of tea or coffee too long, use more or less water, or use a different bean or leaf, you will get a very different result. By the same token, the quality of herbs and the process of extraction is likely to differ dramatically from one manufacturer to another. One manufacturer may use only the medicinal root, while another uses the whole plant to save money. One may use water alone, while another uses water and alcohol.

One may steep the herb for a day while another gives it a week. One may dry the extract onto maltodextrin, while the other dries it on unextracted herb. Rarely if ever does the 4:1 designation mean you can use 1⁄4 of the amount of the extract and get the same result, but it is very common for a 4:1 extract to sell for 10 times the price of the herb from which it was made. Extracts in most cases just don't seem to add value. Standardized extracts are not much better. They are typically “standardized” only for one certain “marker compound”. For example, a hot pepper extract may be standardized for capsaicin, while a black pepper extract might be standardized for piperine. In cultivation, hot peppers can vary from 0% up to about 6% capsaicin, and black pepper runs 38% piperine. Suppose the extract is standardized for 4% in both cases. A batch that tests higher than the specification can be diluted, and one that tests low can be spiked with the pure capsaicin or piperine to bring it up to specification. In either event, there is no specification or standard regarding the input material, what extraction process was used, or what other compounds make up the result. In practice, standardized extracts are not nearly as “standardized” as they sound.