Capsules, tablets, powders, teas, tinctures, oils…. The list of delivery methods for herbal supplements goes on, but on a basic level, the herbs are prepared in one of two ways: As whole herbs, or as extracts. So is one any better than the other? The answer depends on the benefits you seek.
To provide some much needed clarity, Dr. Bill Rawls, Medical Director of Vital Plan, helped us break down the pros and cons of whole herbs and four common herbal extract preparations.
These are pretty much what they sound like: The herb in natural form—leaves, stems and/or roots—is dried and then either cut and sifted (to be used for tea), or ground and milled into a powder. Powders are either packed inside a capsule or sold loose so you can add them easily to a juice or smoothie.
THE PROS: “Since you’re consuming the entire herb, you get its full spectrum of plant chemicals, called phytochemicals,” says Rawls. “That’s a good thing, because the herb’s phytochemicals work in synergy together, and we don’t always know how a single plant chemical performs on its own.” And because the preparation process is relatively simple, whole herbs also tend to be less expensive than other forms.
THE CONS: “Whole herbs are generally not standardized, meaning they haven’t been tested to determine how much of certain chemical components they contain,” says Dr. Rawls. “That makes it hard to judge quality and potency.” Whole herbs also have some indigestible plant fiber and less active phytochemicals than extracts. As a result, you won’t absorb everything and it’s less potent, so you’ll likely need to take a lot more of the herb to see a benefit.
Herbal extracts are substances extracted from the plant using different solvents—some combination of water, alcohol, chemicals, or other liquid that works to draw out beneficial plant components. “Extracts can contain the full spectrum of plant chemicals—it’s typically highlighted on the packaging,” says Dr. Rawls. “And it’s much more common to standardize extracts to a marker of potency and consistency.”
Standardization is typically done by measuring the amount of at least one or two phytochemical compounds that have been researched and identified as having beneficial effects at a certain level. If these compounds are present at the expected levels, the remaining phytochemicals in the plant’s matrix are likely where they should be as well.
The amount of the measured compound is usually written as a percentage on the label. For example, a supplement containing andrographis might say that it’s standardized to contain at least 33% andrographolides (substances known for their immune-supporting abilities). There are four main types of extracts:
1. Liquid extracts (aka tinctures)
To make these, the whole herb is soaked in a solution that’s more than just water—typically it’s a mix of water and alcohol, but it can also be done with vegetable glycerine or apple cider vinegar. “The solution pulls crucial plant chemicals out of the herb, and it acts as a preservative,” explains Dr. Rawls.
THE PROS: “They’re very concentrated, so you only need to take a small amount—15 to 30 drops—to get the benefit,” says Dr. Rawls. Because they’re taken directly under the tongue, they enter the bloodstream faster than other methods, and so you may notice its effects sooner, though it really depends on the herb.
THE CONS: They often have a very strong, bitter, unpleasant taste. “Plus, if you’re taking multiple different liquid extracts, you can end up taking in a lot of alcohol, which is a problem for some people’s digestive health,” adds Dr. Rawls.
2. Dried powdered extracts
Powdered extracts are made by soaking the herb in a solvent that is later evaporated. What’s left behind is a concentrated powder of plant chemicals that’s typically mixed with some whole herb powder to add consistency and sold in capsule, tablet, or powder form.
THE PROS: “Dried powdered extracts are by far the most potent herbal preparation—they’re even stronger than liquid extracts,” says Dr. Rawls. They are also easy to take and portable, making them the most versatile option.
THE CONS: Some companies use harsh chemicals in the soaking solvent that can be unsafe for consumption. You can avoid these by buying from a reputable company that tests to ensure the solvent chemicals are fully evaporated.
3. Essential oils
These are made by a steam distillation of the plant, which removes its oil-based chemicals into a very concentrated liquid. Essential oils are typically inhaled (for aromatherapy) or used topically; a few specific oils can be taken orally.
THE PROS: Essential oils are very potent, which means you can see benefits with just a few drops at a time.
THE CONS: “Because they are so strong, essential oils can be toxic to mucus membranes—another reason to use them in very small amounts,” says Dr. Rawls. “And never ingest an essential oil without consulting your healthcare provider first.”
4. Liposomal blends
A relatively new preparation, these are phytochemical compounds combined with liposomes (fat), which encapsulates the chemicals. They’re sold as either a capsule or tincture.
THE PROS: “The coating of fat helps protect the stomach from irritation, and it improves absorption of phytochemicals in the intestines,” says Dr. Rawls.
THE CONS: They’re trendy and thus expensive. Plus, adding fat leaves less room for the herbs, which means you may not get a high enough dose. “If you’re concerned about absorption, taking your supplement with a healthy fat, like coconut milk, can create essentially the same effect,” says Rawls.
While there are certainly other ways of preparing herbal extracts, this list covers the most common and popular options. Whichever path you choose, be sure to go with a brand you trust, and consult with your healthcare practitioner before starting any new supplement.