Herbal Medicine: Quality and Standardization of Herbal Medicine

Choosing the Best Herbal Products

Where do the herbs in that bottle of capsules come from? Most herbalists feel that when it comes to herbal medicine, the source of the actual plants or herbs is crucial, where fresher is better.

In the past, herbalists used herbs in their prescriptions and products that were harvested locally according to traditional practices. For instance, the herbs were harvested at only the time of year where the activity was at a high level.

In many of the areas of the world today community herbalists, or herbalists working in local communities get most of the herbs and products they need from local wild and cultivated resources. They make tinctures and other herbal preparations from these locally acquired herbs, and only rarely use herbs from afar when no local substitute can be found.

Today most of the herbal products we use and are purchased in natural food stores, pharmacies, and supermarkets were grown or harvested far away from where the products are actually manufactured. For this reason some form of standardization must be in place in order to ensure that the herbal medicines we depend on are consistent in their identity, purity, and levels of active constituents.

When purchasing herbal products in a modern health food store today, one is often faced with an amazing array of commercial products, sometimes lined up on shelves from floor to ceiling. Choosing an herbal product, especially of a popular herb like ginkgo or saw palmetto can be difficult, even overwhelming. For the most part, it's best to stick with brands that are well-known in the marketplace, have been in business for a long time, and who have a reputation to uphold. Some herbal companies are literally marketing companies, and they buy herbs as commodities from overseas in countries as widely diverse as China and Hungary. Companies that are after short-term profits often buy the cheapest extracts on the world market, and then spend a significant amount of money on advertising and marketing, often proclaiming their product to be of the highest quality made from the freshest herbs.

To get the best quality products and value for your money, you don't have to buy the most expensive products, just products from companies who have a good reputation, based preferably on the experience of the professionals that work in supplement departments of the natural foods stores or established herb shops. This is a good reason to shop at these more specialized stores rather than buying your herbal products from a pharmacy or market, where the staff will have little experience with herbs. You may pay a little more, but the extra price will often pay dividends because of the higher quality, freshness, and purity of the products.

Herbal Teas

If you enjoy herbal teas, try to buy the freshest, greenest, and most colorful herbs that you can find in the herb section of herbs shops and natural food markets. It's a good idea to smell and examine a small amount of the herb by placing a pinch in the palm of your hand. If the herb sample is devoid of any type of flavor or fresh odor, and especially if the herbs are brown, then don't buy them. You can also look for discoloration on the leaves, loose dirt, and any other impurities such as small rocks, feathers, or even insect parts. Again, if you buy your bulk herbs from an herb shop or natural foods market that has a fairly high turnover rate you are much more likely to get good high quality herbal material than in shops where the top of the herb jars are very dusty and haven’t been handled much. Finally, choose organically grown cultivated herbs, whenever possible. Some nonorganic herbs, especially when grown overseas, can be fumigated and grown with the use of pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers.

Vote with your dollars by supporting companies you feel good about in a number of ways. Call them and ask about what they do as a company to make sure the herbs they sell are not overharvested, how they test their products for purity and potency, and even employee policies. If you have questions about a particular product and the company that made it, call that company. You can frequently tell how much a company cares about its products from their enthusiasm and the level of customer support they offer.

Cultivated vs. Wild Plants

For the most part, it is better to buy herbs from cultivated sources rather than from the wild. This is because wild crafted herbs are not regulated, and the harvesting of them is often not monitored. It is. For instance, it would be difficult to say whether the herbs were harvested next to the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, or up in the in a pristine area in the mountains in some cases. Some herbs such as American ginseng and goldenseal are overharvested. In many areas, and this is also difficult to track sometimes.


Standardization of herbal products is a controversial issue. On one hand, herbalists sometimes feel that highly purified and standardized extracts don't genuinely represent all the best qualities of herbs and can sometimes lead to safety issues, especially when they are highly concentrated and purified. On the other hand, when herbs are harvested and shipped overseas to faraway places and then made into commercial products such as capsules or tablets, it is very difficult to follow what happens to those herbs along the way. For instance, how long ago were those herbs harvested, how long have they been stored in the warehouse, and what adverse environmental conditions such as excessive heat could have contributed to the degradation in the quality of the herbs. When modern herbal products are shipped across borders, it is often necessary to have some way of ensuring that the advertised herbs on the label are being used in the product, appropriate levels of active constituents are present, and that impurities such as heavy metals and pesticides are not in the finished product.

Modern Testing

Today, we have highly sensitive analytical equipment such as high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) to ensure proper identification, levels of active constituents, and purity of the finished product. This can be accomplished without materially altering the internal balance of the original herb. Look for standardized extracts with mostly low levels of active constituents, matching what is mostly present in the original herbs. For instance for St. John's wort, it is best to stick with products that are offering 0.3% hypericin (an important active constituent), not higher levels such as 4% or 5%. Many modern standardized products today do follow a philosophy that takes the whole plant as the best standard for quality, not isolated and purified individual constituents, though these types of products also are sold.

Look at the label, and if you see products where the active constituent is 40 or 50%, even up to 80% of the total weight of the product, then you have a highly purified standardized extract. These can be the way to go in a few cases, such as milk thistle, standardized to 80% silymarin, but for the most part products with more modest active constituent levels are usually less purified and more like the original herbs.

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