Ever wondered what actually went into that little capsule you take to or boost energy
? The process of turning medicinal herbs into easy-to-take supplements
involves numerous steps, from growing and harvesting, to extracting and encapsulating, before those bottles full of herbal goodness stock our home wellness cabinets.
Here’s what goes into creating herbal supplements
, from their beginnings in the soil to the time you get your bottle of tincture, capsules, powder, or pills.
Growing and Harvesting Herbs for Supplements
Herbal supplements begin as plants (or in the case of medicinal mushrooms, as fungi) growing on farms or in wild places like forests and meadows before they’re harvested.
Herbs are grown for their leaves, flowers, fruit, seeds, bark, or roots, depending on where the herb’s active compounds are found. St. John’s Wort
, for example, is grown for its flowers and leaves, which you may find listed as “aerial parts” (those growing above rather than below the soil), though some herbalists prefer the flowers. Turmeric
supplements are made from the root, as are herbs like ashwagandha
. are examples of supplements made from seeds, and elderberry and cranberry, as you might guess, are derived from the berries of the plant.
In the case of echinacea
, all parts of the plant may be used, though herbalists generally consider the root the most powerful and prefer it for use in acute situations, like battling viruses.
Growers must attend to the specific medicinal components of the plant that alter over the plant’s life cycle. Some herbs must be harvested at specific times, such as just before flowering in the case of , or after a frost, in the case of many roots like dandelion
. Milky oats
must be harvested during the short “milky” stage of the oats’ cycle, which may last only a few days.
Some herbal supplement companies grow many of their own herbs, while others purchase them from trusted suppliers. Gaia Herbs
maintains its own 350-acre organic farm, growing over 6.5 million plants for use in its line of supplements, according to Gaia Herbs Global Sourcing Manager, Chase Millhollen. Having the herbs close at hand allows them to analyze plants in their lab and “pinpoint the exact right time to harvest,” Milhollen says, while the farm’s proximity to the processing facility helps minimize the time between harvest and extraction.
Herbs requiring different climates are sourced from regions where they thrive. Charlotte Traas, BCMH, Director of Education and Training at New Chapter, explains that they seek herbs from “where they grow indigenously, as this produces a strong and hearty plant.” Maca
, for instance, grows best in mountain regions, while kava grows in the tropics.
Other herbs are considered more potent if they’re harvested from the wild rather than farmed, so supplement companies work with wildcrafters to source these herbs.
Turning Herbs into Supplements
Once harvested, plants and mushrooms
are inspected for quality and tested for heavy metals and other contaminants. Herbs must then get processed in varying ways before they become the supplements in our herbal medicine cabinets.
Some herbs are simply dried and powdered before getting encapsulated, while others are treated with different solvents, depending on how medicinal compounds are best extracted. Gaia Herbs Formulation Manager Susan E. Hirsch, MS, CNS explains that extraction processes are chosen to make the active compounds in these herbs more bioavailable.
“When you take extracted herbs” rather than simply dried and ground ones, she says, “they are ready to interact with the body, and in a much more concentrated form, so you don’t need to take as large of a serving.”
Some herb’s compounds extract best with water, others with alcohol, and others with carbon dioxide. Some herbs contain compounds that must be extracted in multiple solvents. To make their mushroom products, Gaia uses a dual extraction process, heating them in hot water and extracting them in alcohol.
uses two extraction techniques on some of their herbs as well. Their turmeric supplements, for example, are made using both water and a process called supercritical extraction, which uses carbon dioxide to derive the oil-based components of the plant. With these two methods, “both the water soluble parts and the olio-resinous (oily) parts of the plant are combined and work synergistically to support the true intentions of the plant,” Traas explains.
Other herbal extracts are sold in liquid form as tinctures
and glycerites, which are made by steeping the selected herb in alcohol (tincture) or vegetable glycerin (glycerite) over a period of many weeks before getting strained and bottled. Some tinctures use fresh herbs, which are in some cases considered more medicinally powerful than their dried counterparts. Herbs with higher water content are often dried before being tinctured.
An especially delicious herbal supplement is elderberry syrup
, which is made by simmering elderberries in water or steam-extracting the juice from the berries. Berries may also be tinctured
or dried, powdered and encapsulated
. Tasty elderberry gummies
are an increasingly popular way to take elderberry as a supplement.
Deciding What’s Inside an Herbal Supplement
Herbal supplement companies employ staff herbalists and biochemists to determine exactly how much of each herb should go in supplements and how herbs are best prepared. Gaia Herbs’ Susan E. Hirsch, a trained herbalist, reports that she begins creating formulae for herbal supplements by reviewing both traditional literature and scientific studies on the herbs under consideration. Using that research, she consults with the sourcing and farm staff before developing a formulation to be created and tested by the production team. They perform quality testing on ingredients and on the finished product and conduct efficacy trials using internal volunteers.
Once the desired herbs have been decided upon and collected, companies use precision machinery to measure exact amounts into capsules, or bind them together in a pill, using food-grade starches or gums. Some supplement capsules are made of gelatin, but as demand for products made without animal-derived ingredients has gone up, you’ll find more supplements labeled vegetarian, indicating that the capsule is made from plant-based ingredients.
Lastly, supplement companies inspect finished herbal products for quality and test them for purity and potency. Once inspected, supplements are bottled, labeled, and sent off to distributors like Vitacost, where health-conscious consumers can buy them.
The next time you take your favorite supplement perhaps you’ll have a new appreciation for the long process your herbs went through to become that deceptively simple dose of herbal medicine