Written records about the therapeutic use of herbs date back around 5,000 years to the ancient Sumerians. But the practice of herbalism itself is much older, with archeological studies tracing it as far back as 60,000 years ago: At the uncovered burial site of a prehistoric man, scientists found evidence of herbal remedies—fascinatingly, many of the same ones we still turn to today.1,2
In other words, using herbs for health and wellness is certainly not new. Herbal supplements as we know them, however, are a thoroughly modern invention, and their popularity has risen exponentially recently. When Solaray began in 1973, we were a small but pioneering herbal supplement company—one of the very first to commercialize herbal blends in capsules, which are all over shelves these days.
Though we now offer vitamins, minerals, probiotics, and beyond, herbs are still a mainstay of our catalog. And we’re proud to remain your trusted herbal experts as we continue innovating in the field, while drawing wisdom from herbalism’s long history. We know it can be difficult to navigate the wealth of new options out there. So, to help you find the right products for you, we’ve created this quick guide to the different types of herbal supplements.
Read on for the scoop on herbal extracts, whole-herb formulas, and more.
Herbal Supplements Defined
Before we jump right into the various types available, we need to first define herbal supplements. To do that, we must answer the question: What are herbs? And that’s not as easy as you might think.
Botanically speaking, the term herb refers to a small, seed-bearing plant known, fittingly, as an herbaceous plant. These plants are characteristically defined by their lack of a woody stem (unlike shrubs and trees). However, some of the most widely known herbs such as sage, rosemary, and lavender aren’t considered herbs by this definition. To complicate things further, the exact meaning of the word differs depending on usage.
Thanks to their savory and aromatic properties, herbs like those mentioned above are beloved in the kitchen. We refer to these herbs as culinary herbs. With this usage, a person is typically talking only about the leaves or flowers of an herbaceous plant—its seeds or other parts are regarded as spices.
Herbs used for their health benefits are known as medicinal herbs (some culinary herbs are also medicinal herbs). This is an important distinction: If the term medicinal herb is used, it could be referring to any part of an herbaceous plant, from the leaves to the roots, flowers, seeds, or bark. In the wellness world, mushrooms are often thought of as herbs as well, as are other parts of non-herbaceous plants, such as fruits. Like their herbaceous counterparts, these plants can have a beneficial effect on well-being and are thus categorized as medicinal herbs.
Products made from medicinal herbs are known as herbal supplements. We’re proud to have helped pave the way for herbal supplements in capsules, but they can come in all forms, including softgels, tablets, tinctures, gummies, chewables, and teas—even topical products.
The Different Types of Herbal Supplements: Whole Herbs & Herbal Extracts
Within these formats, herbal supplements can contain either a whole herb or an herbal extract. What’s the difference?
A whole herb is exactly as it sounds: the entire herb, which is often dried and then encapsulated. Of course, thousands of years ago, our ancestors would have used whole herbs as they were found in nature—consuming them raw, macerated, or cooked—with wisdom about their benefits passed down from generation to generation.
“Whole herbs contain all of the healthful constituents of the plant, such as naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, phenols, fatty acids, terpenes, fibers, and more,” shares Max Willis, Solaray’s Chief Innovation & Science Officer. “Some people favor a whole herb over an extract,” he says, “because it contains the full spectrum of compounds to support overall well-being.” He notes that because of these many active compounds, whole herbs also tend to deliver a gentler response than an extract.
Standardized Herbal Extracts
Standardized herbal extracts are substances made by extracting the active compounds found in herbs using a type of solvent. They deliver one or more beneficial properties of an herb in specific amounts, typically expressed as a percentage.
As Max explains: “Sometimes preparing an extract is a sure way to deliver a higher concentration of active principles compared to what a whole herb would normally possess. For example, the withanolide (beneficial compound) content in ashwagandha is usually less than 1% in the whole root. Through extraction, you can get up to 5% from the root and up to 35% from a combination of root and aerial parts.”
He adds, “Someone might favor an extract if they’re looking for more potent, perhaps fast-acting, support from a concentrated level of active constituents.”
Which Should You Choose?
Neither choice is inherently better than the other. It’s about what’s right for you and your preferences based on the differentiations noted above, as well as your specific wellness needs. Both whole-herb formulas and herbal extracts can deliver powerful health benefits, and each have a place in a supplement routine. You may take one herb in a whole-herb form and another as an extract, for instance. Keep reading to learn about Solaray’s herbal supplements and product lines.
Solaray Herbal Supplements
Solaray is proud to have gotten our start as an herbal supplement company, and to continue offering a wide array of herbal products to support your health and well-being. Below is a cheat sheet to Solaray herbs so you can quickly and easily find the formulas that are ideal for you and your regimen.
Like all of our supplements, our herbal products are lab verified for identity, purity, and potency—quality tested every step of the way. Of course, quality starts at the farm in the field, and we responsibly source our herbs from their native regions where they grow best, always opting for organic and non-GMO herbs whenever possible. For example, we source our maca from Peru, elderberry from Europe, saw palmetto from Florida, and ashwagandha from India. And rather than sourcing unsustainable activated charcoal from hardwood in Norway, ours comes from upcycled coconut husks from Sri Lanka.
True Herbs: Our True Herbs line—with green mountains and bottle labels—is Solaray’s line of whole herbs. Many True Herbs formulas are vegan, as well as Non-GMO Project Verified. Within the line, particularly when shopping at Solaray.com, you may also see products with yellow labels. These are whole-herb formulas that are organic.
Vital Extracts: This family of products, featuring purple mountains and bottle labels, is our line of standardized herbal extracts. At Solaray, we guarantee the percentage of active beneficial constituents in all Vital Extracts formulas. You can find this guaranteed potency as a percentage on the front of the bottle and as a percentage and unit of mass (mg) in the Supplement Facts label.
Herb Blends: Our bottles with blue mountains and labels are our herbal blends, which include a variety of herbs for synergistic support. As mentioned at the start of this article, we were one of the earliest supplement brands to commercialize herbal blends in capsules; we called them our SP blends. We continue to produce more than a dozen targeted SP formulas today that highlight our beginnings and our founder’s respect for and understanding of traditional herbalism.
Though the formulas have remained largely the same, we have also continued to improve them based on the latest scientific discoveries. For example, they now use both whole herbs and extracts to deliver the best outcome. And rather than blending the herbs with homeopathic cell salts, as our founder originally did to help, we now include a trace mineral blend to support whole-body health. With trace minerals grossly lacking in the standard diet today, we feel these formulas are now of even greater benefit, and that the addition of minerals has helped our current SP blends remain favorites in many medicine cabinets.
Building Your Best Wellness Routine With Herbal Supplements
People around the world have been turning to herbs for health and wellness over centuries. Today, thanks to current scientific research, we now know why many of these plants are so beneficial and are able to create herbal supplements that capitalize on this knowledge.
As you build your wellness routine, in addition to vitamins, minerals, and pre- and probiotics, we hope you’ll include herbs. Whether you choose whole-herb formulas, herbal extracts, herbal blends, or a combination comes down to your individual preference and health needs. When you purchase a Solaray herbal supplement, rest assured you’re getting a high-quality, efficacious product you can count on.
1. Si-Yuan Pan et al. “Historical Perspective of Traditional Indigenous Medical Practices: The Current Renaissance and Conservation of Herbal Resources,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2014), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4020364.