You're standing in the health food store in front of two small bottles, doing a rapid-fire cost-benefit analysis. The organic dilemma: is it really worth shelling out a third more for an already dear herbal remedy because it was grown pesticide-free? You're only ingesting a small quantity of these healing agents a day - so isn't it wiser to go cheaper?
Let's just say the answer isn't clear. Holistic practitioners, of course, often insist on organic meds, but researchers haven't yet gotten around to the question of whether chem-free plants are better healers than their fertilized and sprayed cousins.
The pro-organic arguments are compelling. It's not just the absence of chemical residues or modified genes that makes these plants special, say their advocates; it's the fact that they're grown in soil that's been brought back to its full nutrient content. The holistic view goes on to say that if you're looking at a choice between a pharmaceutical and a non-organic herbal remedy, the latter will support your body better.
You might also wonder about the "wildcrafted" label. Wildcrafted herbs have been picked in forests and meadows where they were planted by nature. Sounds romantic. But you don't know about nearby pollution or whether the pickers were skilled enough to avoid mixing in extraneous or even dangerous herbs. Only if you buy wildcrafted herbs from a supplier whose products are certified organic can you count on the fact that an independent inspector has verified that the plants don't come from a toxic area.
The other downside to wildcrafting is that it's pushing medicinals like false unicorn root, lady's slipper, goldenseal, birth root and blue cohosh toward extinction. The disappearance of wild ginseng, once abundant in maple forests, is one terrible result of the drive to cash in on holism. You definitely want to know if the herbs you buy are poached, and whether the marketers are upholding ecological sustainability.
What the experts say "We assume that organic is better. The basis for that is the belief that the whole plant facilitates healing. When a plant consciousness interacts with a human consciousness, that facilitates healing. Organic and non-organic becomes very important then. A plant grown organically is going to be truer to its natural form. It's healthier to take a non-organic herb than a drug; herbs always carry some additional element that supports the body's normal functioning. But there are different kinds of herbal remedies. (I recommend) using only tinctures or dried and powdered remedies made with appropriate parts of the whole herb (not concentrated extracts)."
ANTHONY GODFREY , naturopath, adjunct professor, botanical medicine, Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, Toronto
"The Ontario Herbalists Association professional code of ethics states that the members shall strive to obtain, recommend and administer herbs that have been properly identified and prepared, are of therapeutic quality and have been grown and harvested in an ecologically sound manner. Those provisions harmonize with organic herb use. Plants grown in soils covered with synthetic fertilizers are often contaminated with heavy metals and other pollutants. (In my practice) I've specifically avoided using any non-organic herbs."
CHRISTINE DENNIS , medical herbalist, president, Ontario Herbalists Association, near Port Burwell, Ontario
"The issues with those little black pills (from China) are the sourcing of raw materials, the manufacturing standards and disclosure. We don't know if there are drugs in there; we don't know if (the remedy) has been tested. Some cost $2, others $10. What did they not do, the makers of the cheaper ones? (Still) China has now started an organic program, and Taiwan has organic herbs. Our primary manufacturer is Taiwanese. They test all the herbs for pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and heavy metals, and the finished product for microbial activity."
JOHN SCOTT , doctor of oriental medicine, president, Golden Flower Chinese Herbs, Albuquerque, New Mexico
"The only reason to buy non-organic essential oils is financial. But if you're talking about health, you don't scrimp. Agricultural chemicals have very long half-lives. They're also predominantly estrogenic, so you have not just chemical toxicity but hormone toxicity. Many who say their oils are high-quality are selling industrial quality. They may or may not know that; industrial grade is 98 per cent of world production. Lavender, rosemary and sandalwood are the most commonly adulterated oils. Citrus oils are made from the fruit's peel. If it's not organic, that peel could have had up to 17 sprays."
SUZANNE CATTY , registered aromatherapist and author, Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy, Toronto
"The Natural Health Products regulations require applicants (who wish to sell a product) to demonstrate that the pesticide levels do not exceed certain limits. The regulations also require that the information on the label is not misleading. If the applicant claims the product is derived from an organic source, the onus is on the applicant to ensure that is not misleading."
PETER CHAN, Director, Bureau of Product Review and Assessment, Health Product and Food Branch, Health Canada
"Licensed natural health products sold in Canada (bearing an NPN or DIN number) must comply with Health Canada's regulations and provide evidence of safety and efficacy. Health Canada might select a product randomly and analyse it. If found non-compliant, Health Canada would take appropriate measures."
NATHALIE J. LALONDE, spokesperson, Health Canada, Ottawa