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40 years of AHPA: U.S. herbal market evolution

Photo courtesy of AHPA AHPA vintage
This picture was taken in January 1992 at the AHPA Board of Trustees meeting in Austin, Texas. From left to right: Kathy Larson, Frontier Co-op; Carol Dillard, AHPA Executive Director; Lynda LeMole, Traditional Medicinals; Mary Mulry, Celestial Seasonings; Peggy Brevoort, East Earth Herbs & AHPA BOT President (role now known as board chair); Shel Weinberg, Trout Lake Farm; Jeff Hinrichs, Nutraceuticals Corp; Michael McGuffin, McZand Herbal
Michael McGuffin reflects on the four-decade history of the American Herbal Products Association, including the roots of the herbal industry, as well as AHPA's evolving membership, its tradition of self-regulation and what's ahead for the organization he has led since 1999.

In the 40 years since the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) was founded, the U.S. herbal market has evolved tremendously. Today, more of our family members, friends and neighbors than ever are choosing herbal ingredients to support their personal health. Products that were once found only in independent health food stores now line the shelves at grocery store chains and are only a few online clicks away for delivery directly to our homes.

This extraordinary growth of interest in and selection of herbal goods is cause for both celebration and vigilance. As we look back at the history that has led the industry to where it is today, we have a view of how far we have come and how much we have to continue to protect: from consumer choice and access, to people and planet.

Industry roots

The herbal industry as we know it was started by hippies and Mormons. Both the strong cultural values of the latter and the counterculture and “back to the land” interests of the former embraced herbs and natural products.

From Utah came Tom Murdock and Nature’s Way (1969), naturopathic doctor John Christopher and Grace Larsen with Nature’s Herbs (1968), and the Hughes family and Nature’s Sunshine (1972). At the same time, mostly around the country’s perimeter, iconic brands like Traditional Medicinals by Rosemary Gladstar and Drake Sadler were getting their start. And Mark Blumenthal, the man behind revered industry publication HerbalGram, was distributing herbal products with his Sweethardt Herbs brand in Austin, Texas.

It was also the hippies and Mormons who got together and recognized their common interest in protecting access to herbs. Thus, it was a diverse cultural cross-section at the table for the initial meetings of AHPA when the association was founded in 1982. Fast forward to 2022. That same table has expanded and diversity has been maintained as AHPA’s membership has evolved to reflect the growing and changing herbal industry.

Evolving membership

AHPA is now comprised of more than 400 member companies, consisting primarily of growers, processors, manufacturers and marketers of herbal ingredients and products. AHPA’s members also include businesses that provide expert services to the herbal trade. A hallmark of AHPA is the committee system, designed to bring together members with common interests to work on projects that advance product categories and the industry at large.

Currently, AHPA has 17 committees with members across five continents. The formation of new committees over the years has happened organically, based on member interests and needs. The Chinese Herbal Products Industry was chartered in 2001, the Ayurvedic Products Committee in 2005, and the Cannabis Committee and Sports Nutrition Committee in 2010. AHPA’s newest, the Diversity & Inclusion Committee, was chartered in 2020.

The Cannabis Committee is a primary example of how AHPA has adapted to the evolving industry. The committee was spearheaded by members who saw the potential of hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) long before the ingredient would peak in popularity nearly a decade later. Even so, historically, committees have been approved unanimously by AHPA’s board of trustees, but the Cannabis Committee was an exception. The taboo nature of the cannabis category was unsettling to some, but ultimately, AHPA upheld its duty to members when it chartered the committee. AHPA continues to do so now as a leading voice in the fight for a clear regulatory pathway for hemp-derived CBD products in the U.S. market.

Tradition of self-regulation

Service to members takes many forms and includes the standards to which AHPA members are held—or more accurately, hold themselves. AHPA has been a champion of self-regulation from the beginning. In 1988, AHPA adopted its first trade requirement, prohibiting trade in wild-harvested lady’s slippers and encouraging research on Cypripedium species to conserve the disappearing medicinal plants.

In addition, since 2003, AHPA has maintained a guidance policy regarding the use of ingredients that are or are produced from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Among other things, this policy has encouraged voluntary label disclosure of the use of any herbal ingredients that have been knowingly and intentionally cultivated with GMO technologies.

Most recently, in October 2021, AHPA established a trade requirement for “organic” supplements. The requirement calls for dietary supplements marketed in the U.S. and sold, labeled or represented with use of the term “organic” to be produced and handled in compliance with the USDA National Organic Program (NOP).

Demand for transparency

Beyond calling on members to self-regulate for the good of the industry, AHPA’s policies are supportive of consumers and their demands for transparency, which is not always the case with trade associations. AHPA’s mission is to ensure consumers have informed access to a wide variety of safe herbal goods. Such informed access includes an understanding of corporate values.

Today, the public expects brands to do more than “talk the talk” when it comes to their social responsibility and sustainability practices. Thanks to the choice that consumers now have—in the form of hundreds of thousands of products available to them—gone are the days when companies could operate in a vacuum and expect to win market share and loyalty. Consumers vote with their dollars and are willing to spend more in support of brands they believe in.

It is up to all industry stakeholders—including farmers, manufacturers and lawmakers—to implement business and sustainability practices that will keep workers and the Earth healthy and thriving. Considering the hippie and Mormon roots of the U.S. herbal market, it seems that while much in the industry has changed in 40 years, care for the planet and its people has endured.

Looking ahead

As an industry, we must remain vigilant.

AHPA is committed to ensuring consumers have access to the herbal and natural products they want and has no plans to stop defending such access. Between the years-long fight for CBD regulation, recent dispute over N-acetyl-L-cysteine (NAC), and growing discussion around what we feel would be burdensome and redundant regulation in the form of mandatory product listing, AHPA remains engaged with our members, fellow trade associations, lawmakers and other industry stakeholders on issues that stand to impact consumer access now and in the future.

Michael McGuffin has served as president of the American Herbal Products Association since 1999, leading the association in its mission to promote the responsible and sustainable commerce of herbal products to ensure that consumers have informed access to a wide variety of safe herbal goods. McGuffin also serves on the boards of directors of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia and United Plant Savers, and on the advisory boards of the USC School of Pharmacy Regulatory Science Master's Degree Program and the Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmers Coalition. An industry veteran, McGuffin has been active in the herbal community since 1974, and has taken the lead on legislative matters and regulatory advocacy that have shaped the herbal and natural products industry over the last several decades.

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