Ask an HerbalistFeb 2, 2022

How are herbs different from pharmaceuticals?

We love talking about herbs and herbalism, and we especially love answering your questions about those topics. That's why we brought in our team of herbal experts to respond to some of the most common questions and concerns we hear.

Our herbalists have decades of combined experience working with herbs — and the people who take them. They answer your most pressing questions, in our regular column “Ask an Herbalist.”

How are herbs different from pharmaceuticals?

Finished products made from herbs, like herbal extracts and tinctures, are classified as dietary supplements, while pharmaceuticals are classified as drugs, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Both are strictly regulated, and, because of their distinct classifications, regulations for each category are different.

Dietary supplements are defined and codified by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), under which the FDA regulates for current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs) and labeling. This includes label claims about what a dietary supplement can do to support the structures or functions of the body. The Federal Trade Commission works with the FDA to ensure that claims made about the products in advertising and marketing materials are truthful and not misleading.

To paraphrase DSHEA, an herbal dietary supplement is defined as:

A product intended to supplement the diet that bears or contains an herb or other botanical, or a concentrate, constituent, extract or combination thereof. Among other specifics, the product is intended for internal consumption and is not a food or drug.

We tend to think that herbs are plants, fungi, lichens or algae that come from nature and that pharmaceuticals are synthesized in a lab (and not from nature), but this is not always the case. Herbs were the original drugs, and many herbs have served — and continue to serve — as the source material for the isolates and semi-synthetics used as drugs. Pharmaceutical research often turns to the natural world in search of novel chemical compounds.

However, at Herb Pharm, our herbs always come from nature and are minimally processed using traditional methods to extract their phytochemicals with solvents that also come from food plants. (This includes our alcohol made from sugarcane, vegetable glycerin made from corn and olive oil made from olives, which are all Certified Organic.) We never use industrial solvents or chemical isolates.