Long recognized for its publicly transparent and ethical growing and sourcing practices, Gaia Herbs demonstrates a commitment throughout its entire supply chain to the health of people and planet.
The herbal industry can often seem as opaque as the protective bottles its products come in. And despite the healthful goals of many supplement-takers, corporate accountability and sustainability are not inherently guaranteed. Herbal products in the US are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration as dietary supplements, but the FDA is not authorized to review herbal products for safety or effectiveness before they are marketed. That responsibility is on the company that creates the product, which underscores the importance of purchasing herbal products from a trusted brand.
Being fully transparent as an herbal company that cares about corporate accountability can be complicated — many herbs are at risk of overharvesting, grown by exploited communities and processed with undisclosed chemicals, so the quality of the final products can vary widely. To gain consumer trust, brands look to provide transparent supply chain information to consumers and gain trusted certifications to help distinguish themselves on the shelves. For consumers of herbal products, researching the companies and knowing what different certifications stand for is vital.
Long recognized for its publicly transparent and ethical growing and sourcing practices, certified B Corp Gaia Herbs demonstrates a commitment throughout the company and its entire supply chain to the health of people and the planet.
B the Change spoke with Aimee Sprinkel, marketing communications manager at Gaia Herbs; and Chase Millhollen, Gaia’s global sourcing manager, to hear how herbal businesses can operate with greater transparency, and what customers should be looking for when it comes to product quality.
Why is transparency an important part of corporate accountability in the herbal industry? What are some of the pitfalls consumers should know about herbal regulations and claims?
Chase Millhollen: Research and brand trust is especially important in the herbal supplement industry. Unfortunately, it’s very tricky and time-consuming — you have to choose carefully what you’re going to put in your body, just like food and drink. It is complicated to make a quality herbal supplement [described more below], but many people don’t know that. When you’re comparing two products on the shelf and both bottles list the same herbs, it can be really hard for you to know anything more.
One brand may have organic herbs grown in rich, fertile soil and picked when the biomarker — a measurable indicator of the plant’s condition — is at its highest, indicating peak potency for the final product you buy. The other product could potentially be grown in depleted soil, harvested based on a calendar date and not by peak readiness, and prepared with chemical solvents. None of that is listed on the bottle.
You have to know if the brand you’re choosing is being picky on your behalf. This commitment to transparency is behind our Meet Your Herbs initiative. We want everybody to be able to see how each product meets our strict standards and what those standards are. Anyone can type in the ID number from the back of any of our products and see all the tests the product has been subjected to and the results.
Gaia Herbs Farm in Brevard, North Carolina | Image credit: Gaia Herbs
What steps does Gaia take to ensure ethical treatment of the humans and plants involved in each step of the supply chain?
Sprinkel: On our 350-acre herb farm here in North Carolina, we plant 6.5 million plants each year and have 25-40 species of medicinal herbs, as well as fruits and vegetables for our employees. It is important to us to have a balanced organic ecosystem, not only because a reported 93 percent of all plants used in Ayurvedic medicine are on the verge of extinction, but because we recognize the difference growing methods make in the quality of the final product. It is incredibly important to us to be able to continue to help people on their health journey generations into the future. So, we have been Certified Organic through Oregon Tilth since 1998, grow pollinator-friendly plants, have more than 200 beehives, and are a certified Monarch Waystation and a United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary. We are dedicated to regenerative farming methods — including cover crop rotation, biodiversity management and soil-building methods.
We work with Mother Nature — we check our plants multiple times throughout the growing cycle and harvest based on peak potency, not based on a harvesting schedule. We harvest many herbs by hand to keep the quality as high as possible. The way we work on our farm is based on our values, which are translated into how we source products we can’t grow ourselves.
Millhollen: When we can’t grow, or grow enough of, a plant on the farm, our global sourcing program comes in. We are selective about the network we source from and look for sustainable and organic practices from communities that have been growing the herb for a long time, with mastery in growing the herb. More than 80 percent of our raw materials are Certified Organic. Our strict requirements make it difficult to find quality suppliers, so we try to work as directly as we can with each supplier to look into their environmentally and socially responsible business practices and review their community resource protection practices. For the materials, we quality check our suppliers by using DNA testing, HPLC [high-performance liquid chromatography] fingerprinting; and additional testing — including for microbes, pesticides and heavy metals, to name a few. If the supplier needs to sterilize the material, we only allow clean sterilization methods — heat, steam, CO2 or deep-freeze treatments. We don’t allow any chemical sterilization or fumigation methods.
For the people and communities who are involved in our materials sourcing, we try to look for Fair Trade Certified operations, which shows their commitment to community development. If they don’t have Fair Trade certification, that doesn’t mean they aren’t using ethical practices, so we ask about the social and trade impact of what they are doing and do our best to ensure everyone is treated fairly. It’s harder to gauge than the materials, and it’s difficult in some of the smaller global communities where we source.
Image credit: Gaia Herbs
What’s an example of how your transparent sourcing works in real time?
Millhollen: The turmeric in our supplements comes from Indonesia, near Central Java. Our Gaia team visited the community 2½ years ago. We work with a longtime supplier there, who served as our tour guide in a country where he has been visiting for over a decade, building relationships with growers and processors in order to bring their goods to the international market.
We toured the supplier’s agroforestry system, where turmeric fields are integrated into the hardwood forest. The government controls the hardwood harvest, so the growers get to grow turmeric free, as long as they report back to the government on the health of the trees. It has created a unique intercropping, mixed-forestry model, and the growers are following regenerative practices and are fully organic.
We visited with Puji, who runs the facility and leads the farmers — who work as a producer-cooperative — and helps the indigenous people make a living from sustainable farming. Her team harvests and sorts the turmeric roots by hand, dries them and then screens the roots in a metal detector for foreign material. The turmeric is then shipped directly to Charleston, South Carolina, for us. We are also looking into a Nicaraguan source that will produce turmeric of the same quality — they plan to follow the same agroforestry model and are focused on community building, as well. We are supporting them in diversifying from growing only coffee, which is an important transition to increase resilience for many farmers in the area.
Hemp products, including CBD extracts, are experiencing a boom right now — but like other herbal supplements, there isn’t much regulation or easy differentiators for consumers to know the quality of what they are buying. What do you see as important to consider in this new market?
Sprinkel: In May, Gaia Herbs launched a new hemp extract line — we decided to get into this space because we were seeing so many new products come in the market that we felt wouldn’t line up with our quality standards. We believed that there was a need for high-quality hemp products for consumers that met our stringent standards and that are fully traceable. We’re using [US-grown] hemp flowers because this allows our scientists the tightest control to be able to regulate the quality of our ingredients. Just like our other herbal products, customers can use the ID number located on their hemp extract to discover the source of our hemp, how it was grown, harvested and extracted; and all of the tests that it underwent to validate its purity and integrity through Meet Your Herbs. As far as we know, we are one of the few companies offering a hemp product that is fully transparent and traceable, but we believe people should be able to have transparency into all products they are ingesting, including all herbal and hemp products.
Millhollen: Clean extraction methods are really important in hemp products. It is common in the industry to use toxic solvents to isolate CBD. We only use ethanol and have chosen to create a full-spectrum product and not isolate just CBD. All of the plant’s compounds have beneficial components and work together in what is called the “entourage effect,” so producing a full-spectrum product with all the terpenes and cannabinoids is important to us. We’re moving toward being able to offer a Certified Organic product, but because the 2018 Farm Bill just recently made hemp products available, there aren’t many sourcing options yet.
Sprinkel: That’s one reason we’re donating a portion of all hemp sales to our social impact program, Gaia Roots. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to organizations working to empower hemp farmers in the United States, support diverse and minority farming, and the expansion of regenerative farming practices. We’re looking at how we can give back to improve the industry, in general. People should really look into the companies they are buying hemp and any herbal products from — you should buy from a company who is transparent about its practices and sourcing, a brand you can trust, if you’re going to put their products into your body.
This post first appeared on the B the Change blog on July 3, 2019.