Quality and Sustainability in the Herb Industry: A Conversation with Herbalist & Alchemist 

Echinacea

I have always left David Winston’s classes at herb conferences in a bit of awe at the extent and depth of his knowledge and so was grateful for the opportunity to visit his company, Herbalist & Alchemist. I especially appreciated how candid and open David and CEO Beth Lambert were about the challenges they face in trying to produce high quality herbal products in a changing environment.

Below are excerpts from this interview which is part of a larger project on the herbal products industry. This is a long post. However, it is so difficult to see behind websites and product labels, that I share it to help us all become more educated consumers. I left my visit even more impressed with the integrity and quality of Herbalist & Alchemist’s products and with their ongoing commitment to ensuring that their company lives up to their values. I share these excerpts less to promote their products (though by all means do so if you are looking for herbal remedies!) and more to shed light on the kinds of questions we should be asking of any company that is producing herbal products. There are some really high quality companies out there. There are also a lot that are exploiting people and plants and producing products that do a disservice to the promise of herbal medicine. It is crucial that we know how to discern the difference. A good place to start is by understanding what goes into producing high quality herbal remedies, which is what led me to Herbalist & Alchemist.

David began by talking about how he first created Herbalist & Alchemist as a way to use the medicine he was making for his patients and how his goal from the beginning was to make the absolute best possible medicines that he could on every level.

Ann: Can you talk a bit about what ‘best’ means?

David Winston

David Winston, an internationally known lecturer, author and ethnobotanist, in the founder of Herbalist & Alchemist.

David: The medicine has to be vibrant, full of the activity and constituents of the plant.

You start with the correct plant, gathered at the right time, at the peak of its vitality, then you use various practices to extract the full spectrum of the plant phytochemicals. 

We use a process known as spagyric alchemy to ensure the herb mineral content is represented in the tincture.  Some herbs are made into fresh tinctures, others are made from the dry herb, depending on which produces a better product.

Ann: How do you know which are better dry and which are better fresh?

David: A lot of that is traditional knowledge. I go back to the Eclectics. That literature is rife with saying to use Eyebright or Oats fresh because medicine from the dry herb would be inert. Some is also based on my own experience. I prefer Black Cohosh to be made from fresh root, but dry root also works. I just think the fresh root is slightly more active so I prefer that, but both can work.

Some is also based on science. Say with Artichoke leaf.  There are two sets of constituents from the herb and they require different extracting techniques. You can’t do it in one process. So we actually use multiple processes to get everything we want.

Also, I look at Traditional Chinese Medicine, which you need to understand if you are using Chinese medicinal plants in your products. Having made medicine from these herbs for thousands of years, they have a deep knowledge of what is needed to ensure an effective medicine.  

So we’re looking at tradition, experience, and at science, combining all of these because each is vital and important. And when you put them all together, I think you get the best of all those worlds.

Beth Lambert

A Harvard Business School graduate, CEO Beth Lambert had a very successful Wall Street Career which she left to pursue her interest in environmentally based businesses.

Beth: From David’s point of view, the therapeutic quality of the plants is extremely important, but equally so for me is that the plants come from places where we are helping to support the right livelihood of the people that grow them, that they are grown organically where appropriate or are sustainably harvested where appropriate, and that we try to work as directly as we can with farmers and gatherers.

We’re in a situation now where those markets are changing. A lot of large companies are coming in and introducing more formalized contracts. This past year I’ve really been seeking out the next generation of growers. And also really trying to make sure that we keep that connection with people who know what they’re harvesting, and know how they’re harvesting.

You can’t get to the kind of quality David talks about unless you’re working with people who understand cultivation, harvesting, proper treatment, all those issues to get the plants to us quickly.

There are some times when we do have to source things commercially and right now there are a lot of challenges in the commercial trade. I’ve never seen so many botanicals that we either questioned or rejected this past year. We are very lucky to have a terrific relationship with Rutgers University. They work with us on issues of confirmation of identity if botanicals are in a form where they may not be as readily identifiable (powder or finely cut). Their quantitative tools can also assist with issues of quality. When a plant comes in its whole form, we rely on botany and organoleptic testing, but when we have to get materials that have been cut or chopped or already ground to that level, we really need to authenticate them. And with Rutgers and their multi-million dollar lab, we have that type of science that helps us.

the herbal industryYou can often tell what kind of vibrancy botanicals that come in powdered or cut/sift form have, but with all the issues going on in our industry: adulteration and spiking, you need a balance of both organoleptic and chemistry. And we’re lucky to have our partners at Rutgers.

David: For example, recently a report came out that showed a significant amount of curcumin, (an extract of Turmeric) in the marketplace is synthetic. These are very real issues. For us, as an herb company, it is vital the starting point is what’s in the bottle–what it says on the label has to be actually what is in the bottle. One hundred percent that’s where quality starts. But that is only a starting point.

Over the years I have received many samples from companies that want us to buy their herbs. About five years ago I received a sample of organic powdered ginger. It was organic, and guaranteed to have a certain percentage of gingerols and other active constituents.  It was in a plastic bag. When ginger is good you can smell it through the bag. I couldn’t smell it. I opened it to take some out to smell and taste it. It had a very faint ginger smell, that was all. I almost guarantee someone had already extracted it and then dried the remaining material, and were selling it. Are you kidding? It was organic, “standardized” and yet it was garbage.

We want the vitality of the plant, the essence and energy of the plant. We’re not just interested in one specific chemical.

I’m less interested in standardization and how much % curcumin is in turmeric. Why? First off, since scientists identified the cucurminoids as the active ingredient in Turmeric 20 years ago, more recent research found at least fifteen additional active constituents that aren’t in curcumin. That’s reason one. And number two: Clinically I get better results using powdered Turmeric and tincture than I do with standardized curcumin. You’ll hear curcumin is poorly absorbed. It’s actually well absorbed. It’s in the blood stream and then out of the body very quickly. So, a lot of companies will mix curcumin with lecithin compounds, or black pepper extract to help keep it in your blood stream longer. But there are natural compounds in Turmeric that do that all by itself.

Ann: Where do you source Turmeric? Does it only come from India?

David: Turmeric can be grown elsewhere. Think about it this way: there are some cases where location is absolutely essential for the plants. If you move them to a different location, it will change the nature and density of the plants. But with so many common medicinal plants, Burdock, Yellow dock, Red clover, they aren’t native, and they grow perfectly fine here. Our Turmeric is grown in Hawaii. It is shipped overnight, and it is the most vibrant Turmeric you’ve ever seen. The taste is astonishingly strong as is the smell and the color. It’s gorgeous.

Beth: It comes at the beginning of the year when we aren’t seeing a lot of fresh plants, and when it comes in, everyone just comes over and looks at it. It’s like a breath of summer in the dead of winter because it comes in fresh and is this beautiful color.

David: And when you grind it, the smell is just awesome, pungent, aromatic and powerful.

Ann: Is it enough to trust when a company says the herbs they use are organic?

David: No!

Ann: So how do you find sources that are trustworthy?

Beth Lambert

Beth harvesting herbs from one of her beds

Beth: As David said, my background is in business but I came to this type of a company because of my work in permaculture. I have farmed some myself with some other people. I personally am not the greatest farmer in the world but I understand the challenges and when you have done a job, it helps you to be able to spot someone who knows what they’re talking about. We’ve found sources for our products through the permaculture community; we’ve gotten some from people whom I’ve met–gatherers and growers and many through David’s classes. David is an herbalist and is out teaching at conferences and he connects with sources at events. And through our staff–most of our staff has taken David’s classes and have their own connections/relationships in the grower community. We’ve worked with the Pennsylvania Sustainable Agriculture Association and have found new growers through that organization. We’re here in New Jersey and we try to stay active in the farming community. And our contacts from the Universities have been helpful. We also go to trade events where there are growers. So we keep actively seeking out and recruiting those relationships with people. I really like being able to go visit where our farmers are growing.

Ann: Do you source things from a lot of different clients?

Beth: Yes, it’s crazy.

Ann: You use plants from everywhere, right?

Milky Oats

Milky Oats

Beth: But also as David was saying, say milky oats. Milky oats has to be harvested fresh in a 5-day window during the “milk” stage. Think about the weather. We’ve had problems with drought or flood throughout the US. For that crop, we’ve had to build relationships with people from the south to the north because you never know if something is going to happen with a crop, you cannot be fully geographically dependent anymore on certain plants. You really have to have multiple sources. So we spread orders out in order to be able to maintain those relationships and assure ourselves that we will actually get a crop. So, yes, unexpected events happen. Crops fail. And it’s the toughest thing in the world even for people you’ve relied on for years.

The Pacific Northwest had a terrible drought this year and we had several really good suppliers say, I’m so sorry. I know you put in a contract for this, but this is all we have. And so you scramble. Where else can we find this? What time of year can you get it from somebody? Is there going to be a second cutting of this?

We live in the natural world. And many of our unusual botanicals are not something you can pick up the phone and say send another 100 lbs. We’re following weather, which is becoming more and more erratic. And your heart goes out to people who have to make their livelihood that way.

Ann: How does it work with plants you source from overseas? What sort of relationships do you look for and how do you develop them?

Beth: If we’re working with plants from overseas we try to work with someone who has a US intermediary. A lot of these are smaller farming collectives and cooperatives and that’s a really good emerging model that we’re seeing where they have someone who can speak the language and respond, setting up a warehouse here to receive directly. We import some botanicals directly, but it’s tough. There are so many really good quality people that David has met over the years, really well intentioned, at tradeshows, they give him samples and they’re beautiful and he gets excited. But then there is the nightmare of them having to ship small amounts and all the paper work involved. We’ve really been encouraging people to try to work with some kind of domestic group where they can aggregate so that we have sufficient quantities.

David: There are Indian cooperatives, like organic coffee cooperatives in Africa and Central America, where the folks that are the growers are earning a viable livelihood. The individual members are getting a tremendous value added and their product is wonderful. They are growing Holy Basil, Ashwagandha, Shatavari, Gotu kola, Bacopa, Amla. The Amla in the market place is horrendous, but not theirs. Their Amla is a different color. In the market, it’s all oxidized, all black, not at all nice looking. Their stuff is beautiful. There are studies showing their Amla has four times the vitamin C than the commercial material because it is not all oxidized. They use careful drying techniques. They’re much more careful with handling so they aren’t getting adulteration or bacteriological contamination. They’re doing their due diligence, and now they have a US importer who brings it in for them. They do heavy metal testing, bacteriological testing, pesticide testing, which in this day and age, if you are getting herbs from China or India or Eastern Europe (the three regions sourcing probably 80% of the world’s herbs), you’d absolutely need to be testing for those things.

Black Cohosh

Black Cohosh

On the other hand, even with some of the best organic herbs in this country, we’ve seen issues with bacteriological contamination, so as a company you have to do your due diligence.  We’ve been doing our due diligence before we had to do it, but with the GMPs, you are now required to do it. So I just think it all comes back to whole issue of quality. I want to know that we are selling the best product we could possibly make, that it is what it says on the label, and we’re not giving people all sorts of pesticides, herbicides or adulterants they didn’t ask for.

Ann: How do you deal with importing raw materials from China?

Beth: We get some herbs from there. We tend to use a couple of importers we’ve worked with for a long period of time. You have to be able to trust your middle person. For example, last year we had an issue with Chinese Coptis. We could not find Coptis to pass an aflatoxin test. We tried source after source only to finally find out from a friend who was one of the suppliers that there had been so much rain in China that year that he really couldn’t find anything without afltoxin. So that’s the kind of issue, we just couldn’t get any source to pass our quality control test.

David: Or Dodder seed had lead levels that were off the charts. We had 7 out of every 10 samples test with lead levels that were so far beyond what was acceptable that we just said we can’t carry a product like this because we can’t depend on the fact that only 30% of the time we might be able to find something that meets our criteria. You have to really be aware, you have to look at the issues and then you make choices. We’d rather discontinue a product than have a product that doesn’t meet our standards. And we’d rather be out of a product, not that we want to be out of anything, than sell something that doesn’t meet our quality control measure.

herbalist alchemistBeth: We’re really blessed to have someone like David who does know his plants because we were able to reformulate a number of our products that had Dodder seed or Coptis because of  his knowledge of what we can substitute. People look to us for that. We give them a good explanation as to why we don’t have a product or why we reformulate, they appreciate that, but it’s tough from the business side to try to tell customers that they can’t have something. They hate it when we do that…

Ann: That would make me like you more, because I would trust you.

David and Beth: (laughter).

David: It’s true. But people want what they want and it’s astonishing how often people will just go get it someplace else even if you explain to them that there is a serious supply problem and that the problem is probably going be over there too.

Ann: Even if there is lead…

Beth: And so the other part of our mission is to education. And with David, that’s his passion.

David:

I’ve always believed that education in the first place serves people. But it also serves us. I think the better educated someone is about herbal medicine, the more likely they are to use our products because they will understand the subtle differences between one product and another.

Ann: Earlier you mentioned how big companies are coming in. How is that impacting sourcing?

Beth: The good news is that demand for herbal products is expanding. The tough part is that some of these companies bring in larger business practices, such as long term contracts being made with suppliers which are locking up supplies. Herbs have gotten popular and so you do see companies adding bits of them in a dog food, or a hair shampoo…

Beth: So that just does make it a bit of a challenge, and especially when it is a relatively obscure herb that someone decides is the hot thing. For example, Wild lettuce. Dr. Oz started talking about Wild Lettuce and overnight an extract that sold, maybe 4-6-8 liters a year, we’re selling gallons of it.  Or Passion flower–Gallons of it are going out the door. One questions whether there is that much available that is high quality? These events become challenges and can become quick challenges, when unexpected “mentions” like that happen.

Does every body need Wild Lettuce? No, there are lots of alternatives.

Ann: As a company do you respond by just continuing to do what you’ve been doing?

Beth: We try to respond to the market too.

David: To some degree…

Beth: But not to create…

David: “New improved Wild Lettuce”

David: When the Fukishima plant had a meltdown, everyone was coming out with: iodine products; we didn’t come out with an iodine product. We’re not interested in that kind of sensationalism. And then when a new thing comes along like Maca. We didn’t make a Maca product for a long time.  The main reason was you hear people talk about this was traditional South American remedy. No it isn’t. It is a traditional South American food. It is one of the few plants in the world that will grow at 12,000-14,000 feet above sea level. But most of what you are hearing is fictitious. You hear Ginkgo leaf is a traditional Chinese herb when there is almost no use of Ginkgo leaf in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Or you read that Coleus Forskohlii is a traditional Ayurvedic herb when again it is not. These are modern phytopharmaceuticals.

And in the case with Maca, it was the latest new thing from far away; in the exotic Andes. I would not agree to making it until there was actual human research showing that Maca had activity. Once I saw that it had validity as an herbal remedy and we could source high quality materials, I was fine making it.

Fennel

from Herbalist Alchemist

Just because people want it and it is popular does not mean that something actually works. And I’m not going to sell a product that I don’t believe in. It is that simple. So yes, we do make it now but only because there is actually enough research. Now if it had been used for thousands of years by Andean people, that probably would have convinced me a long time ago, but the reality is that when you look at the literature there is virtually no history of it being used except as a food. It only started to get a reputation as an “aphrodisiac” in the 1930s or 40s, that’s not hundreds or thousands of years of traditional usage. So I was skeptical until proven wrong.

I was just talking about this in my acceptance speech for the 2013 NPA Clinician of the Year Award.

We’ve just past the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech. And I have a dream: And my dream is that in my lifetime I will see a time when herbal medicine becomes a part of mainstream American culture. I would love to see a time when every mother and father and grandfather and grandmother knows basic kitchen medicine for their family. When there are community herbalists in every community and clinical herbalists in every clinical setting. I want to see herbal medicine come back to its rightful place, not just complementary or an alternative, but as a functional part of medicine and the culture. And I believe that herbal medicine can be one of the things that can help us create a more sustainable practice of medicine in this country.

That’s my vision.

So in some ways those of us who have helped to bring about this herbal renaissance over the past 40 years, we’ve been more successful than we’ve ever imagined. I don’t get phone calls anymore of people asking: what is this Echinacea? Every one’s heard of Echinacea, Milk Thistle, Saw Palmetto.

The problem is certain herbs have become popular but herbal medicine has not.

We still have a long way to go. Herbal medicine is really in a different paradigm. A good herbalist treats people not diseases. Hippocrates said that more than 2000 years ago: It’s more important to know the person that has the disease than the disease the person has. He was correct. So we have a long way to go to bring this back.

I think it starts with education as well as the herbal industry providing exceptional quality herbal products. If people take a product that is inferior and it doesn’t work, they will say that herbs don’t work and we know that they most certainly do.

Thank you, Beth and David – and please take a moment to check out their website with lots of resources on Herbalist Alchemist and educational materials from David’s classes.

To read more on the Herb Industry, see these posts by Deb Soule of Avena Botanicals, Jovial King of Urban Moonshine, and Dr. Tieraona Low Dog. Stay tuned for upcoming interviews with Zack Woods Herb Farm, Naturex and more!

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