Learning what is in your natural plant extracts

As the consumer demand for more natural products has grown, there has been an ever-increasing trend to use whole plant extracts in skin creams and dietary supplements, instead of highly purified single molecule ingredients. This approach is very good as the synergistic benefits of the whole plant extract are concentrated and are in a form that your body knows and recognizes.

But in choosing which ones you use, you need to be aware there are many ways in which to make plant extracts, some which increase the potency, some which have no benefit and other techniques which can be harmful.

How do they make extracts?

Dietary supplements are plant based extracts that have been made using a variety of manufacturing processes. Some of these techniques will produce a highly concentrated plant bioactive, while others use solvents to pull the bioactive compounds out of the plant material.

Freeze drying is an expensive process in which the plant material is gently frozen to a highly concentrated form using water.  There is also spray drying which passes the liquefied plant material through a high-pressure nozzle and removes the water.

The use of solvents

Alternatively, the far cheaper and more common form of making plant extracts is the use of solvents such as methanol, ethanol, isopropyl alcohol and acetone. This process works by absorbing the bioactive compounds out of the chopped up plant material and then evaporating the solvents off and drying the extract.

The problem with evaporating off solvents such as methanol is that not all of the solvent is removed and traces remain. Some of the solvents used and the other chemicals that are often mixed in during this process can be toxic and affect your long-term health.

Regulatory environments allow these solvents to be used based on the premise of limited exposure.

What to look for

When choosing which skincare to use or dietary supplement to take, check which process they use to make their plant extracts.

Using a solvent to make an extract is very cheap and allows companies to make bulk extracts for minimal cost, but traces of the solvent can remain.

Also remember information about the extracts used in skin creams does not have to disclose if they contain solvents, parabens or preservatives, only the finished cream.

Plant extracts can also contain traces of herbicides, pesticides and excess levels of heavy metals. Some countries have regulations requiring routine testing of these as well as solvents and microbial contamination, but others do not.

So the “all natural” product may not be as pure as suggested. It pays to really do your homework and check where companies are sourcing their “natural ingredients”.