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Herbal standards

Stress relieving massage oils to plant products for glowing skin – umpteen herbal products are lined on the 'herbal sections' of supermarkets. All the herbs and oils used in the products are honestly mentioned on the jars and bottles. But who tells you what these exotic sounding ingredients stand for? And who guarantees quality?

India, among the fastest growing herbal products' market, has finally taken these questions seriously. Lucknow-based Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (CIMAP) has put together the country's first 'Botanical Reference Substances' catalogue that precisely lists most authentic marker compounds in plants and herbs used in such formulations.

"Unscrupulous manufacturers and traders are attempting to capitalize on this trend of 'back to nature' by selling anything that comes their way without the slightest consideration for quality. This spurred us to put together these quality standards," says CIMAP director S. P. S. Khanuja.

The institute has come up with quality samples of herbs and oils that can be matched with those used in commercial products to verify if they meet the standards.

Quality issues

The question of quality has long been debated in CIMAP's annual national interactive meets that ponder over these compromises. "For years now, the tilt was in favour of non quality herbals because there was no reference material and standard in herbals," Khanuja says. The Botanical Reference Substances (BRS) cataloguing will now enable regulatory agencies to implement strict measures.

Quality issues in botanicals range from the correct identity, adulteration, lack of validation parameters as well as lack of standard material and microscopic characteristics. A dearth of scientifically validated information on standards coupled with poor enforcement makes plant-based products a thing of suspicion.

In times when Indian herbal products are flooding the global market, it is also essential to meet standards across countries. CIMAP realized this need alongside the potential of application of such standards in research institutes, pharmaceutical industries and universities. The CIMAP team put BRS in the form of raw herb material and essential oils.

BRS is aimed to aid botanists, ethnobotanists, herbalists, pharmacognosists, natural products chemists, biologists and health professionals. "With gradual enforcement of good manufacturing practices (GMPs) for herbal dietary supplements, the application of many of these disciplines will become standard operating procedure for product development and manufacturing," he points out.


BRS for herbs include a voucher specimen as a representative sample of the plant. BRS most effectively work on crude herbs that have not gone through the extraction process. Use of BRS is an assurance that the plant or raw material purchased matches the botanical identity of the original plant.

"As a first step BRS may be used to compare the material either macro- or microscopically," he says.

A well-documented BRS allows microscopic evaluation. Additionally, since might not be possible to verify many products under the microscope, one can still use BRS to assess such material using thin layer chromatography.

The BRS sample list of herbs is currently available for close to 50 commonly used plants such as Aegle marmelos (bel fruit), Aloe barbadensis (ghritkumari), Bacopa monnieri (brahmi), Ocimum sanctum (tulsi), Plantago ovate (isabgol) and Withania somnifera (ashwagandha).

Essential oils

Essential oils broadly comprise terpene and their oxygenated derivatives. BRS, in this case, are made from pure essential oil extracted through steakndistillation from organically grown aromatic plants. Samples are volatile terpenes obtained from leaves, roots and aerial parts of such aromatic plants. The standards are set taking into account parameters such as specific gravity, optical rotation and refractive index. The buyer gets a gas chromatograph profile sheet with the sample.

Sample oils are expected to be a boon for quality validation in perfumery, cosmetics, food flavors, pharmaceuticals, phytomedicine and aromatherapy industries. Oil standards have been set for close to 20 essential oils used in these industries.

"The list of these samples is growing and we hope to cover all indigenously grown herbs and oils very soon," Khanuja says.


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