Extraction and purity
Learning about supplements can be confusing. The supplement market is one of the most competitive there is, and companies employ a range of advertising techniques that will have us believe that their brand is the most potent or pure. You may even be convinced that dietary supplements are a necessity for good health, which can be frightening. The decision-making process can be a difficult one. We’re here to help!
In this blog post, we’ll be talking about how an X: Y extract and a percentage purity differ. We’ll shed some light on the science of extractions and hopefully make it a little easier for you, the customer, to come to an informed decision about what kind of supplement to buy.
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The natural origin of medicine
A dietary supplement, whether it is a vitamin, an ancient herbal formula or a new-age Nootropics, has only three possible ways of being created. It may have been extracted from a natural origin, synthesized in a laboratory or designed using a combination of the two.
The vast majority of modern medicine has been derived from natural sources. Examples include morphine, codeine and all opiate-based drugs which are derived from the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum; as well as aspirin, which is derived from the White Willow Tree, Salix alba vulgaris. Only a very few drugs are synthesized purely in a lab, and even these are often chemically similar to naturally occurring chemicals .
Why we use extracts
The active chemicals in the plants, animals or microbes that we use to create medicines and supplements must usually be extracted and purified before consumption for a number of reasons.
Sometimes the natural source may contain a lot of other chemical compounds that may be toxic or unhealthy. An example is the experimental anti-cancer drug G202, shown to kill up to 50% of prostate cancer cells in mice over a 30-day period. G202 is extracted from Thapsia garganica, a Mediterranean weed that is also known as the “death carrot” .
Sometimes the original source of the chemical may be impractical for use: insulin, for example, was extracted from the pancreas of pigs and cows up until fairly recently .
Mostly, though, the active chemical occurs in too low of a concentration to have an effect in its natural source and needs to be extracted into a stronger dose.
The basic math
It is a common mistake - even for people with a math or science background - to assume that a 4:1 extract equates to 75% purity.
Let’s take a look at these two concepts to understand how they differ. We’ve learned that the natural source of a supplement is usually not adequate for medicinal purposes, so the desired chemical needs to be extracted. Here’s the easiest way of understanding the difference between X: Y extracts and percentage purity.
A 4:1 extract is a ratio expression, indicating that 1 unit (weight) of the extract is derived from 4 units (weight) of original material. X: Y extracts would usually occur in a capsule or powder format but sometimes might be bought as a tincture (liquid form).
A supplement that shows percentage purity would generally be a lot purer and stronger than an X: Y extract. In a 75% pure product, 75% (by weight) of the product is the pure chemical extract. The other 25% would be a filler or additive, which might be added for any number of reasons (the pure chemical could be too strong to be practical at a 99% purity, for example).
Often, supplements that are derived from plants or other natural sources would first be extracted into an X: Y ratio extract, before being further extracted by other techniques to get the 100% pure chemical. This is then cut into the purest possible product using fillers or additives known as excipients (see our previous post).
Our recommendation - a world of difference
We would strongly recommend purchasing a supplement that expresses its purity as a percentage over one that uses an X: Y ratio. This is for three main reasons.
Firstly, a percentage purity expression is better because it shows how much of the extract consists of a single active compound (by weight). An X: Y ratio shows us that X units (in weight) of raw plant matter have been used to create Y units (in weight) of unstandardized extract.
Plants contain chemicals known as phytochemicals (also known as secondary metabolites), which protect the plant from disease or from potential threats. These can have a number of effects on the human body, including antioxidants (Allyl sulfides from onions and garlic), enzyme stimulators (Terpenes from citrus fruits), alkaloids (morphine from Papaver somniferum) and many others .
Many of the psychoactive drugs that are used medicinally and recreationally are phytochemicals extracted from plants . There is still room for a large amount of research into the effects of phytochemicals on human physiological pathways.
An X: Y ratio extract will contain an unknown amount of phytochemicals, which may interact with the activity and effectiveness of the single phytochemical compound that you are after.
Secondly, plants, like people and animals are individuals. This may sound like a strange statement but if you think about it for a second, you’ll realize it is true. We don’t mean that plants have individual awareness like humans or animals; we mean that they are all unique individuals in their biochemical traits.
The same species of plant may differ in the strength of its phytochemicals by an extremely large amount depending on its heritage (breeding history), its environment (temperature, humidity, altitude) and its diet (nutrients in the soil, how much water it gets).
Not only that but every individual plant grown in the same field, greenhouse or hydroponics system will have varying phytochemical amounts and can be considered as individual organisms.
The implication of this on extractions is that even in plants with one dominant phytochemical, the concentration of the compound will differ between individual plants so that it is nearly impossible to standardize the strength of an X:Y extract (i.e., the extraction efficiency is unknown).
Lastly, the concentration of active phytochemicals in plants varies hugely, depending on the species. Quinine the world’s most potent anti-malarial drug is extracted from species of plants in the Cinchona genus (commonly referred to as Cinchona bark). The most potent species, C.succirubra, has an average quinine content of around 4 - 14% .
A 4:1 extract of a C.succirubra plant with 4% quinine content would produce an extract with roughly 16% quinine (assuming 100% extraction efficiency).
The same 4:1 extract of a different plant from the same species, with a quinine content of 14%, would produce an extract with roughly 56% quinine (assuming 100% extraction efficiency). This potentially HUGE variation in the content of active phytochemical in each extraction is what makes an X: Y extracts such a poor format of expressing the strength of a supplement.
- Percentage purity shows the percentage (in weight) of a single phytochemical in an extract while an X: Y ratio shows the ratio (in weight) of plant matter to finished unstandardized extract
- Individual plants differ in their phytochemical content so the efficiency of each extract is extremely difficult to ascertain
- Each genus and species of plant differs in phytochemical content which can create a huge variation in the concentration of chemical compound between individual extracts