by Devon Powell
Tissues. Toilet paper. Mattresses. Clothing. Beverages. Foods. Drugs. Dietary supplements. Gloves. Personal care items. Cosmetics. Toiletries.
Its hard to believe that humble, yet somewhat menacing-looking plant that sat on grandmothers windowsill or grew in her garden has such widespread usage. But there doesnt appear to be any shortage of innovation with this ingredient.
However, given its ubiquity on product labels, how many products contain efficacious amounts, or do they contact Aloe vera at all? This is a valid question given recent FDA scrutiny on label claims and concerns regarding economically motivated adulteration. Looking at the global Aloe vera supply chain and data from a 2009 survey of raw material suppliers conducted by the International Aloe Science Council (IASC), between 35,000 and 45,000 acres of Aloe vera were grown around the globe by IASC members, producing approximately 30 million to 50 million gallons of aloe vera juice from the estimated 700 million to 800 million pounds of harvested aloe vera leaves. Extrapolating from this data and other sources, IASC estimates total, global cultivation of aloe vera is between 60,000 and 90,000 acres.
The data confirms a lot of Aloe vera juice is produced; however, it doesnt reveal how much of it actually finds its way into products and whether those products can and do meet label claims. In fact, many suppliers believe, based on their sales, a lot of label claims are likely met by fairy dusting Aloe vera into products, rather than having any meaningful quantity of the ingredient. While there is no agreement on how widespread the practice may be, it is likely many companies have noted the Aloe vera appeal and include it on labels to attract consumers.
There are reportedly more than 400 known species of aloe. However, the two most widely cultivated aloe species for commercial purposes in the health, food and nutrition, and related industries are Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis, or Aloe vera (L.) Burm. f.) and Aloe arborescens. In the United States, aloe vera is the most widely used species, and very little aloe arborescens is used in the manufacturing of products for any usage.
Aloe vera, the common name for the species Aloe vera (L.) Burm. f. (or Aloe barbadensis as its often called), and which translates as true aloe in Latin, is grown primarily in sub-tropical climates, prefers solid sun, and as a succulent from the Lily family (Liliaceae), can withstand being watered infrequently. Like nearly all aloe plants, they are not capable of withstanding frost and related temperatures. This species tends to be larger with shorter stems, and can be identified further by its thick, fleshy, leaves shaped somewhat like tentacles, being heavy or thicker at the base and tapering to a point, and its bright green color. Younger plants tend to have off-white spots on them, and only the larger plants tend to produce yellow flowers. Aloe vera will grow, slowly, with the leaves forming a circular pattern of usually the same height (rosette), in a clumping fashion. Aloe vera is the primary species used in the majority of products manufactured and sold today in much of the world, particularly in the United States, and can be readily found in cosmetics, foods, dietary supplements and other products.
Aloe arborescens, a member of the asphodelacea family, is likely the most widely cultivated aloe species in the world, being used in health and related products as well as for decorative purposes, though not often seen in the majority of the former categories outside of Japan. Arborescens is the Latin word for tree-like or tree-forming, and refers more to the plants stem-forming habit than to its direct likeness to a tree. This species can be found primarily in the eastern area of Africa, and has the third widest distribution of any aloe species, being found from the Cape Peninsula on the East coast to Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi in the North.
--Information excerpted from the International Aloe Science Council (IASC)
With a near dizzying array of products claiming to contain Aloe vera on the label, it can be hard to know whats really got aloe and what doesnt. It first helps to have an understanding about how the plant is processed. There are two primary forms of Aloe vera juice sold on the market in a variety of forms, from freeze-dried and/or concentrated powders, to fresh juicealoe vera leaf juice and aloe vera inner leaf juice. Many alternate terms turn up on labels, including gel, fillet and purified whole leaf.
Aloe vera leaf juice is made by taking entire Aloe vera leaves and grinding them up, typically using some enzymatic treatment (such as cellulase) to break down the rind and heavier-weight materials, and then filtering the resulting slurry, usually with charcoal filtration, to remove any other unwanted materials such as the aloe latex (a yellow, bitter-tasting exudate that is a powerful laxative).
Aloe vera inner leaf juice is made by removing the rind prior to processing, either by machine or by hand, and then rinsing away the aloe latex. The remaining, gelatinous inner-leaf material is then ground or crushed into juice.
According to IASC, the one thing that is absolutely necessary in order to call either of the above ingredients true Aloe vera is a string of sugars called Acemannan, or beta 1-4 acetylated glucomannan. This marker compound is naturally occurring in the plant, and is one of the only markers and means to potentially identify the ingredient analytically once processed or in a finished product. The IASC certification program utilizes a NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) methodology in order to verify whether finished products contain true Aloe vera. The organization sends inspectors to facilities around the world to ensure products are manufactured according to GMPs (good manufacturing practices) and to collect samples of applicants finished products and/or raw materials for analysis to ensure they meet IASC certification standards. Products that pass the analysis are then sampled randomly in order to ensure those standards are maintained.
IASC has been managing its seal-based certification program for more than 25 years, and certified products can currently be found in 120 countries, with a total of 430 finished products currently meeting IASC certification standards. A list of products passing certification is maintained on the IASC Web site, as well as a list of products that are no longer certified.
Devon Powell is the executive director of the International Aloe Science Council (IASC).