Extract standardization is the process supplements companies use to make sure that all their products are of the same quality and purity. A standardized extract has one or more chemical compounds in a guaranteed amount and the amount is usually written as a percentage.
There are two main methods of standardization, and which one is used depends on whether the active compound is known or not. Standardization to a marker compound is used when a herb or plant is known to have beneficial effects, but the compound or compounds that create the effects have not yet been found out. When the active compounds are not known companies must choose a marker compound, an easily identifiable compound that occurs only the herb or plant of choice, in sufficient quantities, and standardize their extracts using the marker compound as their ‘target’.
Standardization to active components is used when the active compounds the ones responsible for the beneficial effects are known. For the sake of scientific research, standardization to active components is preferred over use of marker compounds as it allows scientists to research the effects of a specific chemical compound on the body, rather than having to sift through numerous compounds(1).
The importance of standardization
If you buy an herbal product and there is no standardized chemical compound written on the bottle then unfortunately you will have no idea what you are buying. Let’s say you buy a bottle of Ltheanine, which is commonly extracted from varieties of tea. If there is no percentage Ltheanine listed on the bottle, you might be buying a 99% extract or you might be buying a 0.001% extract and there is no way you would know(2. (For an example of a high qualitystandardized product check out Liftmode.com’s (L-Theanine.)
Standardization of herbal and plant extracts aims to provide consumers of supplements with the same information as consumers of pharmaceuticals. Whenever you buy a medicine, the amount is shown on the bottle and extract standardization means that this information is available to consumers of any product, synthetic or plantbased. This acknowledges the power of plant and herbal based therapy and that it is an actual contender to purely synthetic medicine.
Unfortunately, there is still no legal requirement for dietary supplements to be standardized in the US. Also, there is no legal definition of the term ‘standardization’ regarding dietary supplements in the US which allows companies to use the term ‘standardized’ to mean a number of different things(3). Some companies may advertise their product as standardized but be referring to a ‘standardized’ manufacturing process. For this reason, it is important for the consumer to make sure that the product lists active components or marker compounds in a percentage before making a purchase.
Unstandardized supplements can be dangerous to your health. Nearly all chemicals that have an effect on the body will have a level at which they become detrimental to health. This is true for both pharmaceuticals and for natural products. If your supplement is not standardized you may run the risk of overdose or dangerous sideeffects.
Alternatively, if you buy an unstandardized supplement you might be buying a product with no effects at all. If the company has not listed a standardized chemical compound to a certain percentage or amount then it could be occurring at any amount, including one that is too low to produce any effects.
Difficulties in the standardization process
There are a number of difficulties in producing quality supplement extracts that do not occur when producing synthetic compounds (pharmaceuticals). Standardization is difficult to achieve for a number of reasons. Making chemicals in a lab allows all environmental factors to be controlled. The starting materials will always be of a certain quality and availability is not an issue. This is not the same for plant and herb extracts.
Some issues that occur in standardizing herbal supplements include:
- Herbal extracts and supplements are often made up of a number of chemical constituents
- The active components in plants are often unknown
- Plant materials are variable one company might be using the roots or leaves while another uses the bark
- Plants themselves are highly variable the concentration of phytochemicals differs from species to species even between individual plants
- There are a vast number of environmental factors that can influence the quality of raw plant material including soil quality, water, air temperature, altitude and many more
- Transportation, harvesting, drying and storage methods may all have effects on the quality of plant materials
- The process of standardization may differ from lab to lab, producing different quality materials(4)
Methods for controlling the quality of standardized extracts
We’ve seen that there are a number of factors influencing the quality of extracts. Since there is no legal framework for standardization, how do companies control factors that could significantly alter the quality of their product?
We’ve already looked at how raw plant materials can vary due to environmental factors such as the time of harvest, the soil quality and where the plants were grown. Controlling the variation in plant materials requires a number of generations of plants from the same growing operation to find trends in quality. These trends can be matched to environmental factors which can then be controlled, but this requires a large amount of time to be effective.
So, the plant material quality may differ from batchtobatch and cause variations in extract ratios (amount of raw material to the amount of primary extract). However, once the primary extract is obtained, any further variation in product quality would be a result of manufacturing processes.
Therefore, a further method of control is in the manufacturing process specifically in the amount and type of extraction solvent used. In fact, the entire manufacturing process needs to be controlled so that there is no variation in manufacture that may cause a difference in extract quality. When the type and amount of solvent used is the controlled, some variation in solvent concentration is still acceptable for producing a highquality standardized extract(5).
These are just two methods that are set out as guidelines, but each company will have their own procedures for controlling variability in a product.
Whole herbs versus standardized extracts
This is a longstanding argument in the field of herbal medicine and there is enough information for us to write an entire article on it. However, this has been done so many times that we’d rather not. We’ll just briefly explore two of the major arguments made by some natural medicine practitioners and if you’d like more information just ‘google’ the topic and you’ll find heaps!
One of the major arguments is that standardized extracts overlook the dynamic nature of wholeplant remedies. Many practitioners argue that standardizing extracts inadvertently makes the claim that there are only one or two active compounds in a plant and that all the other phytochemicals are of no purpose. This is an interesting argument and some argue further that plants contain hundreds of active phytochemicals in varying amounts, and that when the whole plant is used the effects may be more wholesome than when using a standardized extract (6).
An example of the truth behind this argument is the use of medical Cannabis. Medical marijuana is comprised of at least 80 cannabinoids (chemicals found in cannabis), five of which have been studied extensively. All five major cannabinoids (THC, CBD, CBN, CBC and CBG) have distinct physiological effects. The cannabinoids work in a dynamic manner so that varying levels of each cannabinoid produces greatly different effects(7).
Some alternative practitioners may also argue that standardizing extracts will open the market to patenting companies may be able to patent certain standardization techniques or extract forms. Some argue that this could allow big pharmaceuticals to involve themselves in what was previously seen as an alternative market which, they argue, could lead to a decline in alternative medicine practitioners and smaller businesses(8).
In science, it is important to have an open mind regarding all arguments and theories. The beauty of science is in its openness and vulnerability.
The above arguments are both definitely valid in certain situations. However, it is important to remember that if alternative remedies and plantbased extracts are to be seen as credible they need to be able to meet the same criteria that pharmaceuticals do. Standardizing plant extracts creates a much more scientifically valid product and allows herbal and natural supplements to be seen with much greater credibility than how they may currently be viewed by the majority of potential consumers.
In this article, we’ve looked at two methods of standardization standardizing to a marker compound and standardizing to the active components of a plant. We looked at the importance of standardization and how it protects the consumer from being ripped off and from possibly dangerous side effects, as well as making alternatives to pharmaceuticals more scientifically credible. We examined the difficulties faced by companies aiming to standardize extracts and a couple of measures that can be used to aid in controlling variation. Finally, we took a brief look at the whole herb versus standardized extract argument.
For alternatives to pharmaceuticals to continue to grow and gain credibility, it is important for the consumer to be informed before making a decision. Purchasing power cannot be overestimated. Since there is still no legal framework that governs the standardization of extracts, the market needs to be shaped by informed consumer decisions. Choosing to purchase highquality, highpurity standardized extracts is like placing your vote in the industry.
ANYBODY can learn to understand these things and help push the market toward better practices not only people with a science degree or a background in nutrition or herbal medicine.
With the help of sites like these and companies that provide quality services (check out Liftmode.com), consumers can be informed and educated!
1 “Marker compounds, active components and reference standards” By Ted Waszkuc, Ph.D., R&D Methods Department, NOW Foods, accessed 20092015 http://www.nowfoods.com/Quality/DoSupplementsWork/M042770.htm
2 “Make standardized extracts standard” by Genuine Health, 20 Feb 2015, accessed 20092015 http://www.genuinehealth.com/makestandardizedextractsstandard/#.Vf9R_FVSukp
3 Factsheet “Botanical Dietary Supplements” National Institutes of Health, accessed 20092015https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/BotanicalBackgroundHealthProfessional/,
4 “Standardization of herbal medicines A review”, Ahmadu et al, Jan 2012, International Journal of Biodiversity and Conservation Vol. 4(3), pp. 101112, March 2012 http://www.academicjournals.org/article/article1380017716_Kunle%20et%20al.pdf
5 Factsheet “Guidance on equivalence of herbal extracts in complementary medicines” Australian Government Department of Health, accessed 20092015 https://www.tga.gov.au/publication/guidanceequivalenceherbalextractscomplementarymedicines
6 “Whole Herbs vs. Standardized Herbal Extracts: Which are Better?” By Amy Kosowski, M.S., LDN, Nowfoods.com, accessed 20092015 http://www.nowfoods.com/Quality/DoSupplementsWork/M043723.htm
7 “How Medical Marijuana Works” United patients group, accessed 20092015
8 “Why Standardized Herbal Extracts?” Dr. Michael Tierra L.AC., O.M.D, East West School of Planetary Herbology, accessed 20092015 https://www.planetherbs.com/phytotherapy/whystandardizedherbalextracts.html