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Supplement extracts are great for our health, but can be very confusing. Capsules, tablets, tinctures, tisanes, mg, %, ratios, what does it all mean?! Read on…
Natural supplements are usually made of plant extracts. Supplement extracts can be whole, concentrated, or a specific compound can be extracted. There are plenty of methods of supplementing with herbs and natural extracts, below are some of the most popular. But which should you choose? Which is best? What do all those words and numbers mean?
What are the Different Extracts?
This means that the extract is made to a ‘standard’ and that every batch must meet that standard.
If supplements are plant-based, the constituents may vary batch to batch, season to season, etc. Standardised extracts contain a set amount of a specific constituent, guaranteed, in every batch. This is important when you need a certain amount of the active ingredient to have a therapeutic effect.
For example: Pine Bark extract >95% – this pine bark extract is standardised to contain no less than 95% OPCs.
The OPCs (Oligomeric Proanthocyanidins) in this case are the active ingredients, potent antioxidants that are providing the health benefits. By standardising the extract to 95% OPCs, we can be sure that every batch contains the optimal amount of OPCs.
This refers to the strength or potency of the extract. If an extract is 10:1, it means 10g of the raw material is concentrated into 1g of powdered extract.
For example: For a 10:1 extract, 20mg in a capsule is the equivalent of 200mg raw material.
The bigger the difference between the two numbers, the stronger the extract.
10g herb – 1g powder 10:1 (stronger, more concentrated)
5g herb – 1g powder 5:1 (not as strong, less concentrated)
Some supplement companies label their supplements with the ‘equivalent’ mg, rather than the actual mg in the capsule. You may see a capsule labelled as containing 6,000mg for example, which is impossible. It probably contains 100mg of a 60:1 extract. This can vbe misleading and makes a confusing system even more difficult to understand!
For example: Moringa Leaf Extract 10:1 – this moringa leaf extract is concentrated at a rate of 10g of fresh leaf to 1g powder.
This means that all the benefits of 10g of whole moringa leaf have been concentrated into 1g of powder extract.
Are Supplements Always a Standardised or Ratio Extract?
Some are both.
For example: Curcumin 10:1 >95% – this curcumin extract is standardised to contain no less than 95% curcuminoids and is concentrated at 10g fresh root to 1g powder.
Some are neither.
If a supplement doesn’t have either of these descriptions and if it isn’t labelled as an extract, it is likely a dried and powdered whole herb. This doesn’t mean it’s no good, but you will likely need to take much more of it than a concentrated extract.
Which is better?
It depends on the plant. Using a whole herb will give you the benefits of all of the plant’s many constituents and how they work together. It is more of a holistic, traditional approach. However, isolating a single constituent has a more targeted effect. You will likely need to take less of a highly concentrated extract; the higher the potency, the lower the dose.
Take turmeric for example. There’s no doubt that turmeric is good for you, but to get the therapeutic health benefits from it, you need an isolated constituent.
Taking 500mg turmeric powder, while tasting good, will not give you anywhere near enough of anything to be therapeutic. Taking 500mg of a 10:1 95% turmeric extract, however, will contain enough curcuminoids and other compounds to have an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect.
Powders, Capsules, Tinctures, Tisanes, Macerates … Which to Choose?
The best form of supplement, or method of extraction, depends on the supplement.
The most common form is powder-filled capsules. These are ideal for a wide range of supplements, they don’t require preserving and usually the only excipients (added ingredients) needed are things like rice bran to help a sticky powder flow through the capsule-filling machine. Vegan-friendly capsules are widely available.
Pressed powder tablets
Pressed powder tablets are also common and they can contain more extract than capsules, however these do require more excipients in order for the tablet to stay together. They are usually vegan as no need for a capsule, but they sometimes have a sugar or film coating.
Liquid-filled capsules or ‘gel caps’ are an option; these can be vegan-friendly as there are more and more gelatine-alternatives around. These are great for oil-soluble supplements and vitamins, such as curcumin, CoQ10 and vitamin D, and increase the effectiveness of the supplement. If gel caps are not available, it is advisable to take powder caps with some fatty food to increase the absorption. Very few excipients are required, except the oil base and an antioxidant to extend the shelf life.
Tinctures are another option, particularly if you don’t like swallowing tablets or capsules. They are fluid extracts, made by extracting or infusing plants in alcohol and water* and are usually made with fresh herbs rather than dried. They are much less processed than powder extracts and give the benefits of all the compounds in the plant that are water/alcohol soluble. Usually only a few ml or droppers full of the tincture are needed and can be added to water and drunk or dripped straight into the mouth.
The ratio in this case applies to the amount of herb to the amount of extraction liquid. A 3:1 Feverfew tincture is made with 3 parts solvent to 1 part herb. Whereas with powdered extracts, the bigger the difference between the two numbers, the stronger the extract, the opposite is true with tinctures. A 1:1 tincture is the strongest, whereas a 5:1 is not as concentrated.
5 parts alcohol – 1 part herb 5:1 (only one fifth as much herb as solvent)
1 part alcohol – 1 part herb 1:1 (equal parts herb and solvent)
*Tinctures that are made with glycerine and water, rather than alcohol, are referred to as Glycerites. Glycerine does not have the same extraction power as alcohol, so isn’t right for every herb, but works well for some.
Tisanes are something that everyone is familiar with, although they may not know it. Tisanes are herbal infusions or herbal teas, although they don’t necessarily contain tea. They can be made from leaves, flowers, berries, fruit, twigs, bark, roots, in fact any part of the plant (depending on the plant).
Tisanes are a wonderfully gentle way of getting the benefits of herbs and plants into your body. They are the least processed method of supplementation, herbs are dried and then cut if needed. That’s it! No preservatives required.
The extraction method in this case is a water infusion. The dried herbs are placed covered in boiling, hot or cool water for anything from 5 minutes to 24 hours (depending on the herb) and drunk.
So you can pick and choose! There is no one size fits all answer. Everyone is different, so try them and see which suits you best.
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