by Mitchell Clute
In recent years, the supplements aisle has grown crowded with condition-specific herbal blends. Whether in the form of tinctures, tablets or single-serving elixirs, blends are targeted to a range of health issues, from liver toxins and joint health to immune support and acid indigestion.
Some blends work from a traditional pharmacopoeia like Ayurveda or traditional Chinese medicine, while other blends are more eclectic, using common native and non-Western herbs based on the clinical experience of individual herbalists.
"We create our own blends, and I definitely think this category will continue to grow a lot," says John Hay, president of WhiteDove Herbals, based in Hygiene, Colo. "I think the big picture behind all this is a new generation of people we could call Gen Rx because of their tendency to self-medicate. They've heard horror stories about drugs and their side effects, and would rather treat a condition with herbal remedies."
Who are they for?
One benefit of condition-specific supplements is that using these products doesn't require detailed herbal knowledge, or even, in many cases, the help of a store employee— what the product is intended to treat is often clear from the name itself. That can make these blends more approachable for new naturals shoppers.
"For our condition-specific products, the target audience is precisely this crossover shopper," says Marci Clow, senior director of product research for Rainbow Light, based in Santa Cruz, Calif. "Many people are looking for an easier, one-step solution. You'll always have the health food shoppers who know all the herbs and do research on their own, but when herbs are combined in a single product you don't have to approach it piecemeal."
In keeping with that ease-of-use philosophy, WhiteDove Herbals offers single-serving herbal elixirs. "Tinctures don't taste great, and if things don't taste great people won't take them," Hay says. "With the predosed packets, there's no glass to carry around, and we added honey and natural flavor to get better compliance."
"The American consumer likes to have things prepared for them," says Steven Dentali, Ph.D., chief science officer for the American Herbal Products Association, based in Silver Spring, Md. "It takes out the guesswork. People don't want to become herbal experts for the same reasons that many people don't want to cook— it requires knowledge of the ingredients and how to combine them."
Herbal blends, in other words, are for almost everyone. The key is to find a blend that is well formulated and uses high-quality ingredients. "It's easy to find a list of all the herbs for a specific condition and throw them together," Dentali says, "but that doesn't mean they'll work better."
Retailers should contact manufacturers to get information on how blends are made and who does the formulating. For example, Rainbow Light products are formulated by well-known herbalist Christopher Hobbs, and WhiteDove Herbals' products are designed by Linda Whitedove, who has 30 years of experience.
When is a blend the right approach?
Though Western herbalism has a long history of working with single herbs, blends are ubiquitous in the Ayurvedic and TCM traditions, and also common in Native American herbal traditions. A condition-specific blend can work well for almost any condition— as long as the herbalist formulating the products is knowledgeable.
"I think this approach is certainly closer to the ideal, which is when you're working with a health care professional who understands herbal combinations and people," Dentali says. "Many contemporary herbalists do quite well blending formulations, making blends that address more than what a single herb can do."
If they're formulated properly, such blends can be highly effective. "Many of the drugs we have originated from seeing how herbs and plants worked on people," Hay says. "Drug companies isolated certain compounds from these plants and synthesized them in order to make a profit. But because herbs are more broad-spectrum, they'll work on a wider range of people, with fewer side effects."
Condition-specific blends are particularly suited for conditions that require both immediate and long-term healing action, or that consist of a variety of separate symptoms.
For example, Rainbow Light's ArthX contains the traditional joint-health ingredients chondroitin, glucosamine and MSM, along with the anti-inflammatory herbs turmeric and ginger. "With some joint problems, it takes a long time before you see a beneficial effect," Clow says. "By adding turmeric and ginger, we're able to provide an immediate effect."
As an example of a condition with a variety of symptoms, Clow points to menopause. "We have to put all the ingredients together to treat hot flashes, anxiety, breast tenderness and lack of libido," she says. "Black cohosh will treat a number of these areas, but if you want to cover them all, you'll need other herbs with a strong history of traditional use."
Old remedies, new synergies
In some cases, herbal blends can not only work in concert, but actually show increased effectiveness through synergistic interaction. Sometimes this knowledge is traditional; other times it's based on contemporary research and experience. "There is a system of combining herbs in most traditional medicinal systems that makes sense," Dentali says. "For example, licorice is used heavily in many TCM formulas, and it is now accepted that it helps many compounds get absorbed because of the detergent-like properties of its saponins."
An unusual blend of herbs can be found in WhiteDove Herbals' Naturight Chewable Antacids. The product combines traditional calcium carbonate with ginger, licorice, meadowsweet and other medicinals to address not just symptoms of acid reflux, but underlying causes. "The idea is to create a product that is more than the sum of its parts," Dentali says.
Meadowsweet, for example, contains salicylic acid, a painkiller that is also the active ingredient in aspirin. Unlike aspirin, it doesn't upset the stomach. Stomach trouble is further reduced by the inclusion of ginger, which also decreases inflammation. And licorice not only sweetens and flavors the product, but helps the other ingredients act effectively.
The bottom line
Condition-specific blends can have several benefits for retailers. First, they're relatively easy to recommend without in-depth knowledge of herbalism. Second, they fit most consumers' conception of what a remedy should do— address a specific health issue. Finally, products with unique delivery systems usually cost more, so that can mean higher margins versus standard tablets or tinctures.
Many manufacturers have a full line of remedies; just be sure to stock products from companies working with knowledgeable herbalists.
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 6/p. 48,50,52