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Processing fresh plants

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The Swiss naturopath and pioneer of natural medicine Alfred Vogel (1902-1996) always sought the ‘entire’ plant (i.e. the entirety of all substances in a plant). He was convinced that it was not just one or more substances that are important in a medicinal plant but that every substance plays a part.

This is perhaps best illustrated using the example of an orchestral work. Can the kettledrum, the gong or the triangle be omitted simply because the main accents are with the piano and the sound of the violins, or because the horns and the woodwind are important?

Alfred Vogel believed that in plants, no accessory could be dispensed with and no active substance or auxiliary substance was without some value. If we are unable to name and define the role of the ‘triangle’ in a plant, this is because we as human beings simply do not (yet) have sufficient knowledge.

However, this obviously does not rule out that substances vital for plants can be dangerous to human beings and must be eliminated, such as pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which are toxic to the liver.

Fresh plant preparations

"Care, sensitivity, complete understanding and a deep love of plants, not forgetting a keen desire to heal those who are suffering, are needed in order to carry out the various endeavours associated with the manufacture of high-quality products. Often, this means trekking high into mountain valleys in order to collect the medicinal plants in their correct, fully active growing stage and still be able to process them on the same day if possible. The extracts must be produced with care and without heating in a way that enables all substances to be extracted so that they are present in the same ratios as they were in the plant itself."

Alfred Vogel, 1964

Why the need for a total extract?

In keeping with this philosophy, Bioforce AG strives to retrieve as broad a spectrum of constituents as possible, for the plant tincture. All constituents, including those of which we are not yet aware, can be responsible for the overall efficacy of a herbal medicine.

The technical term for this is ‘total extract’. Clinical and medical experience increasingly shows that such complexes of active ingredients have special merits. These are sometimes less to do with the intensity of the effect than with better tolerability and absorption.

Panta rhei – everything flows

Plants are living material and cannot be standardised in the same way as synthetically manufactured products.

The quality of other natural products also tends to vary. In the case of wine, it is known that each vintage can be of a different quality. We have already mentioned that the constituents of plants are not always identical. However, consumers are justifiably entitled to a consistent medicinal effect. So how can natural variability be reconciled with the need for the healing power of a remedy to be consistent at all times?

Various steps are taken to obtain largely homogeneous medicinal plant material and achieve the most consistent possible effect. This starts with the seeds, and our own propagation of seeds means the same quality of seeds is always available. The choice of cultivation site and the time of harvesting can also help ensure that the content of the constituents is only subject to minor fluctuations.

In addition to consistency of propagation and cultivation conditions, ensuring that plant material is always handled and processed in an identical way (known as validated production processes) helps us ensure that natural fluctuations in mixtures of substances are kept within the narrowest possible limits.

Quality assurance

In addition to attention to the raw material used, careful control of all steps in the manufacturing process is crucial for the quality of the preparations. As in the manufacture of all other medicines, the production of herbal medicines is also subject to official rules, which are known as ‘Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP)’.

This term refers to European and global guidelines for quality assurance in the production of medicines (and sometimes of foodstuffs and food supplements). They guarantee the consistent quality of products.

GMP-compliant manufacture is crucial because only medicines that are manufactured in this way can be released for the Swiss market and exported to other countries. This naturally also applies to A.Vogel remedies, which are exported to many countries around the world.

Standardisation means unifying quality

Starting from the fresh plant through to the end product, standardisation means unifying quality at all stages of production where this is necessary in order to achieve a defined standard or specification.

Standardisation is an extremely complex and involved process, which can be completely different for each species of plant. At Bioforce AG, the total extract of a plant is always standardised.

Standardisation is performed on the basis of measurements that are now possible because of modern laboratory techniques. If the key constituents for efficacy are not yet known or are not yet sufficiently known, pharmaceutical quality is assessed on the basis of the specific constituents of the plant known as lead substances. These are chemical compounds, which are typical of the plant and known to play a key role in its medicinal effect. They are auxiliary agents for the chemical analysis, and are therefore used for control purposes.

If the substance or group of substances responsible for the efficacy of a plant is known, standardisation is followed by normalisation. This generally involves the setting (normalisation) of a specified standard value in order to achieve a constant effect. For example, each tablet of A.Vogel's fresh plant varicose vein product contains precisely 50 mg of aescin, which is the principal active substance in horse chestnut.

Mixed batches – further standardisation measures

Bioforce AG's Quality Control department analyses all batches of plant delivered and compares them against prescribed requirements known as specifications. These are based on the results of tests for various lead substances collated over several years.

Each batch of extract produced is stored in large tanks. Fluctuations between the individual batches are levelled out by careful mixing – and in this way extracts can be further standardised.

For example, if an extract with a relatively high proportion of one lead substance is mixed with an extract with a low proportion of this the same lead substance, a specific average is obtained that must, of course, be within limits specified. This ideal mixing ratio must extend to all defined lead substances.

• Ingrid Zehnder-Rawer

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