It's a New World for aloe

"All is well, aloe on board."

— Christopher Columbus

Columbus' journey was a classic good news/bad news trip. Seafaring vessels always like to find land. It wasn't exactly the India he was looking for, but he took it. In today's aloe market, beverages are making a splash — but not all of them. Some 2008 aloe-drink product launches fizzled in 2009. Others have really captured consumers' imaginations.

Case in point is Alo brand drinks. Using aloe juice and pulp straight from the leaf and not reconstituted from powder, and not 'whole leaf' aloe, the natural drink sweetened with sugar is positively booming.

"Consumers love the taste of the product and the unique flavours, but also appreciate the benefits the drink provides," says Henry Chen, executive vice president of SPI West Port, makers of Alo drinks. "The future is bright and very promising. We launched last year so we're working feverishly to build out our distribution and make ourselves available to all consumers."

On the other hand, Aloe Splash drinks have called it quits on five of its 2008 launches. Was it the sucralose? Was it the marketing? The distribution? Hard to make heads or tails of the fickle aloe world.

Larger issues also are at play, chief among them raw-material characterisation and product labelling. For instance, a study by the National Toxicology Program at the US Department of Health and Human Services claims whole-leaf aloe extract can cause colonic cancer in rats. This has the aloe industry up in arms for a number of reasons. To its credit, the aloe industry has used the crisis to enlist the venerable American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP) to publish an aloe monograph in order to help suppliers and manufacturers vouchsafe for their aloe.

"I'm absolutely positive the ingredient they used in the study is not what the industry sells to people," says Devon Powell, executive director of the International Aloe Science Council. "They didn't contact anyone in the industry when they chose what to use. They used native whole-leaf aloe-vera extract. 'Native' means they didn't filter it, and they fed it to mice and rats for two years. Aloe latex is a laxative — if you give anybody enough of it for two years and there's a diarrhoea state for two years, yes it could lead to colonic damage."

One problem is marketers persist in using the term 'whole leaf' on labels. It's not accurate, says Powell. "Nomenclature is a big issue right now. 'Whole leaf' is misbranded — you're filtering it, you're not using the latex, you're not using the whole leaf. Our recommendation is to not use the term. You need another qualified word, like 'charcoal-filtered' or 'filtered.'"

The AHP monograph is expected to be out by the time this is published.

"We are keeping an eye out for it," Chen says. So is the rest of the aloe world. Innovation sells, but a foundation of quality is always first.

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