Melissa Gribble, co-founder of family-owned Australian supplement firm Pharma Botanica, was speaking to NutraIngredients-Asia shortly after the company had reportedly experienced a sharp rise in demand for its 100% plant products over the past year.
CEO Paul Gribble had earlier said this increase was the result of a growing awareness among consumers as to the 'synthetic' nature of many 'natural' health supplements on the market.
Sustainability versus profitability
Melissa Gribble said: "It's always been an issue of adulteration and authentication. The biggest problem is that most of the herbal products on the market are made with extracts; very few use the pure forms of the plants on which they are based."
The main reasons for this are that pure products are expensive and require a lengthy manufacturing process. To many companies, these traits do not make for a profitable business model.
At the same time, she argued consumers tended to be unaware of the difference between a botanical extract and the actual plant it comes from, as brands are not required to disclose the residual chemicals used in manufacturing herbal supplements containing such extracts.
Using turmeric as an example, she said only 2.4% of any given batch of the plant could be used to create curcumin, resulting in tremendous wastage of plant matter.
"There is also little reliable evidence to say taking curcumin is better than just eating turmeric. What's worse is that final product would have lost all its shared DNA with the source, which is important for bioavailability.
"Botanical extracts are more about ownership than medicinal benefit, because manufacturers can patent the extract but not the plant," she argued.
Processing and pricing
However, Gribble believes the level of consumer awareness is gradually rising. "I think more consumers are starting to become more aware of the situation. That's why they're turning to companies like ours, which use 100% organic, non-extract botanicals. We're probably one of the last ones standing."
The company specialises in health supplements made from 100% pure plant material, with ingredients sourced from their respective countries of origin through local organic farms. Pharma Botanica imports these ingredients and has them tested by Australia's Southern Cross University, firstly for identity, and secondly for safety, to ensure there are no residual chemicals used in their farming.
The herbs that pass these tests are sent to a TGA-approved, pharmaceutical-grade third-party manufacturing plant, where they are slowly dried — this process makes sure the active ingredients are not altered.
After this, the dried herbs are powdered and blended, then left to sit for five days before being tested again — this time for any trace of microbial contamination — before they can be contained in capsules and packaged for sale.
Gribble said the entire process was costly, and meant that each batch of the company's products took about four to six months to make. To keep them affordable for customers, Pharma Botanica has opted for a direct-to-consumer approach.
"We don't sell via the retail channel — if we sell to a chemist, for instance, each bottle of our capsules would cost about A$150, so we sell directly to customers to avoid higher margins," said Gribble.
The products are available to consumers, wholesalers and practitioners on Pharma Botanica's website (which ships internationally), as well as through Australia's Home Shopping Network.
So far, the company's main demographic has been adults aged 40 to 65. The supplements come in capsule form, but consumers can also open the capsule and add the powdered ingredients to their food or drink.
Gribble said: "Our products contain the actual DNA of the plants they are based on, whereas products that use extracts do not. Each of our formulas contain five to nine different plants, giving them broad-spectrum usage.
"We address systems in the body as opposed to particular conditions, so it's more about supporting and maintaining each organ, which is the traditional naturopathic way of going about it."
Realisation influencing regulation
In light of growing concerns around the sustainability and quality of herbal supplements, Australian regulatory body the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) will now require herbal extracts to be tested for 40 different industrial solvents commonly used in their manufacturing process.
Gribble said: "I think this first step by the TGA is very good. My only question is whether or not brands will have to state the residual chemicals found in their supplements on their product labels so consumers are aware of what they're eating."
"I believe verifying the origins of the plants used in herbal supplements will be the next step for the TGA," said Gribble.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the World Wildlife Fund, approximately 15,000 flowering plant species among the 50,000 to 80,000 used for medicinal purposes worldwide are facing extinction.