Adulteration in Herbs and Herbal Powders

Last week, the attorney general of the state of NY (whom I voted for) sent cease-and-desist letters out to Walmart, Walgreen’s, GNC, and Target because their herbal supplements mostly don’t contain the herb(s) listed on the bottle. Instead, those little gelcaps are full of stuff like flour, rice, and weeds. Not the good kind of weeds either.

isaac hollandus handI’ve always felt oogy about herbs in gelcaps for a number of reasons. For one thing, I don’t think it’s good to approach herbs the same way we do allopathic medicines. For me, the very idea of something being in a pill, something that was once alive and the size of an herb, just reeks of destruction of the herb’s medicinal properties through grinding and drying and sifting and storing. I think of what Isaak Hollandus, a medieval alchemist who wrote more about the Plant Stone than most, had to say about processing plants alchemically. He said the more you ground the herb, the more you killed it. That if it releases its smell while grinding, that’s its soul going out. You can imagine what he would have to say about how herbs are dried, ground, and sifted in the supplement industry.

Then there’s the question of adulteration. One of the reasons why I have avoided offering powdered herbs for sale in my shop is because of the propensity of herbal suppliers to adulterate their products. Why would they do this? Because for one, it’s not against the law. Having no regulation of herbs has its good side–we are able to purchase a wide variety of herbs in the US, many of which are regulated in other countries (and it’s true, in some states of the US).  Selling belladonna or monkshood is not illegal or even regulated. That’s good, because we get to use those herbs in magic without having to grow them ourselves.

But the down side is that it is perfectly legal for a supplier to sell anything at all as an herb, regardless of what it is. I had this experience up close and personal when I first moved up to upstate NY about 10 years ago.

henbane in dryer

Henbane in my herb dryer

At that time I stumbled upon a supplier of Ayurvedic herbs that catered to practitioners.  They sold henbane, and I thought it must be good quality since they were providing to healthcare. Let me tell you, this was a pretty exciting find. Henbane just is not found in commerce anymore. So I bought a pound, glad to pay the inflated price because it was something I could not get anywhere else and it was an item my customers asked for regularly. I did notice right off that they shorted me. But okay.

It was in the form of a dark brown powder. It did have a pungent smell, although I would not identify it with henbane.

Then one day someone complained about the potency of the henbane. The customer didn’t think there was any actual henbane in this powder. I thought that was a pretty off-base claim, but I wondered how I could test its potency without actually ingesting it. I decided to put some on a piece of tin foil and heat  it and see what it smelled like. Before it began to combust, it should give off the scent of dried henbane. (Most witches know that if you combust various herbs, they smell like burning garbage, but if you simply heat them, they will give off their unique smells.)

butter crook

Adulteration is an old problem. Here’s a 1906 vendor selling garbage churned up and dyed as “sweet scented farm creamery butter.”

Well, the heated henbane powder smelled just like toast. I knew that meant it was primarily made out of flour. I knew the company hadn’t broken any laws. They lied, but lying about the content of that powder was and is not illegal.  Unethical, but not against any law. And I am sure those weasels were very well aware of that.

I quit selling it then. But I thought heck, if a company is providing medical practitioners is selling flour instead of the herb, then no powder from any company will tend to be trustworthy. This is especially true after the revelations that have occurred since my experience with the powdered henbane ten years ago–things like Chinese manufacturers adding melamine to baby formula and pet food. The only alternative is to purchase herbs in at most chopped form, so that the pieces are identifiable as the herb. Since that time, that’s what I’ve done wherever possible. Not all Chinese herbal products are crap, either. I have found Plum Flower Brand to be okay, especially if you buy the whole single herbs. They have, for instance, whole ginseng, whole reishi mushrooms, etc. Expensive, but you can actually see what you are getting and know it is real.

I myself generally quit using any herbal powders in gelcaps for medicinal purposes. I’ll try to use a tincture if I have one or can buy one, or a tea made from the chopped herb instead.

Some people have seen the actions of the the NY state attorney general as an attack on herbal supplements or herbal medicine and consider that the guy is a tool of Big Pharma. I don’t think so. He attacked these sellers not on the basis that the herbs don’t work but on the basis of purity–that the herbs weren’t even there. This is traditional Muckraking and a good thing. Big Pharma has found other ways to attack herbal medicine–by, for instance, “patenting” plants used for medicinal purposes. Right now, they are focusing on patenting various marijuana strains.

Anyway, just thought I’d weigh in on this issue with a different perspective. If you want to use herbs medicinally–and I do–try to grow them yourself. Most people don’t need access to a large variety of herbs for medicinal purposes. Research which herbs would help whatever conditions you have and focus on say five of them. This is good work from the perspective of witchcraft as well. There is nothing like growing a plant to get to know its spirit.

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