Aloe vera is as old as civilization. The ancient Egyptians used the herbal plant to combat worm infections, relieve headaches, sooth chest pains, burns, ulcers, skin disease and allergies. Cleopatra reportedly used aloe for its cosmetic benefits. It is even mentioned in the Bible (John 19:39).
The popularity of aloe has remained strong throughout the ages, earning itself a reputation as one of nature's most proven all-purpose healers. Today, research is showing that daily oral supplementation of aloe supports a wide range of physiological functions, taking it in a new direction.
Historically, aloe has been used as a skin balm and laxative, according to Pamela Schonbeck, director of sales and marketing, Carrington Labortories, Irving, TX. "Aloe vera is one of the most recognized botanicals in the consumer marketplace," she said. "It is found on every store's shelf in lotions, shampoos, sun care products and even toilet paper. However, most consumers are only aware of the topical benefits of aloe as a moisturizer and others are hesitant of its sometimes potent laxative characteristics when taken orally."
Beyond Topical Applications
Aloe juice is the most common form of aloe used for daily supplementation, though it is available in capsules and tablets as well. Aloe juice, sometimes referred to as gel, is processed from the inner gel fillet or by grinding the whole leaf. The inner gel fillet is made by removing the outer rind of the leaf and retaining the inner fillet, whereas whole leaf aloe includes the rind.
Shedding light on the difference between inner gel fillet aloe and whole leaf aloe was Tim Meadows, president, Concentrated Aloe Corporation (CAC), Ormond Beach, FL. "Whole leaf aloe gel is made as the name suggests, from the entire leaf," he said. "Aloe gel fillet contains about .5% solids on the average, however, the whole leaf process yields between 1.2-1.5% solids. Therefore, the price per solid of whole leaf aloe gel is cheaper than the price per solids of inner gel fillet." In addition, he said, whole leaf aloe gel is subjected to far more processing because it contains more materials that are undesirable.
Despite their differences, both forms of aloe have the same applications. Although whole leaf aloe gel has a strong, cult-like following, according to Mr. Meadows, the inner gel fillet is the more popular of the two and has a longer track record. "Before aloe could be processed into a juice, the common technique was to peel back the rind, just like you would peel a banana, and eat the chunks of inner gel inside the leaf," he said. "All of the research work that has been conducted on aloe has used the inner gel fillet."
In terms of aloe's taste, Carrington's Ms. Schonbeck commented, "The bitterness associated with aloe comes from the anthraquinones or aloin found in the yellow sap between the outer rind and inner gel. These are generally found in higher concentrations in whole leaf juices and have a strong laxative effect when consumed. The more palatable inner gel juices often have trace amounts or even an absence of anthraquinones."
When consumed orally, aloe imparts a wealth of health benefits that range from stimulating the immune system to relieving stomach disorders to aiding digestion. According to Ken Jones, director of research and development, Aloecorp, Broomfield, CO, aloe has been the focus of many research studies published over the last two decades. "Daily supplementation with aloe has been proven to stimulate the immune system, improve wound healing, stimulate the production of a whole cascade of antioxidative enzymes that act to detoxify the body of carcinogens and inhibit the formation of DNA adducts that can cause errors in DNA replication," he said, adding, "Recent studies have also confirmed that daily supplementation with aloe displays anti-inflammatory, antioxidative and hypocholesterol effects."
While most of these conclusions are based on animal models, a recent human clinical study showed that both vitamin C and E bioavailability is increased by as much as 300% when taken with aloe instead of water. Mr. Jones said, "No other matrix is known to increase the bioavailability of both water and fat soluble vitamins."
Much of aloe's biological activity is attributed to polysaccarides, according to Bill Pine, vice president of sales and marketing, Improve USA, DeSoto, TX. "Aloe Vera is composed of almost 200 different biologically active substances. The major molecule is the polysaccharide mannose, which is joined through a beta 1-4 linkage to form a chain," he explained. "These long chain mannose polysaccharide molecules are thought to be responsible for directing the synergistic activity of this vast array of compounds."
In addition to polysaccharides, aloe is also composed of simple sugars, glycoproteins, proteins, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Going into further detail was Mr. Jones. "Research has now shown that there are many small molecular weight components, including glycoproteins, that play a significant role in the overall medicinal effects associated with aloe," he said. "It is likely that these components work in synergy, resulting in overall enhanced and diverse effects in contrast to purified extracts from aloe. It should be understood that purified extracts of aloe usually target one specific biological activity rather than the full scope of physiological effects demonstrated by whole aloe."
Consumer Awareness & Trends
Aloe has one of the highest levels of recognition for herbs among the public and the fact that it has such a wide range of applications makes it good for marketing just about anything. Improve's Mr. Pine said that aloe recently led a list of new product launches that contained herbal ingredients with 1200 new launches, out pacing the runner up by almost double.
According to Aloecorp's Mr. Jones, continuing research on aloe's medicinal properties by prominent labs around the world has raised consumer awareness of aloe's benefits. However, he said a large portion of the population is still unaware of aloe's benefits as a nutraceutical or functional food. "As research further defines the biological activities of aloe it is establishing aloe as a multifunctional medicinal supplement. Aloe use as a supplement in beverage form is the strongest growth area," he said, adding, "Aloe should be considered a functional food. By definition, a functional food has physiological effects above and beyond its nutritional benefits and aloe has displayed those characteristics."
Jim Gambino, vice president and general manager, Terry Laboratories, Melbourne, FL, suggested the latest trends in the aloe market are geared toward aloeceuticals, which blend aloe with other supplements and herbs.
CAC's Mr. Meadows offered his insight into aloe trends. "At one point people were using aloe as a major part of their formulation, whether it was a drink or skin care product. By major I mean 25% or more aloe in the formula," he said. "Then we had a swing where aloe followed the same pattern as a lot of other exotic ingredients. Just an eyedropper full was being used, so the product could say it contained aloe. Right now we're more on the swing of functionality. As a result less people are going into aloe, but the people who are, are using it at more realistc functional levels."
As for the future of the aloe market, Mr. Pine said things are looking good. "Complex carbohydrates (long chain polysaccharides) are gaining more recognition as being beneficial to our immune system," he said. "As new studies support the synergy of aloe with other natural products as well as vitamins and minerals, aloe will become a leader as a dietary supplement in both beverage and capsule forms."
Regulation & Adulteration
One area of concern in the aloe industry centers around aloe content. Improve's Mr. Pine said there are products in the marketplace whose aloe content is so small that it provides little value to the consumer. "Not unlike other herbals in the industry, there are those who will adulterate a product in the name of profit," he said.
According to CAC's Mr. Meadows, it is common for marketers to want aloe in their products because it is the number one ingredient for label address, however, because aloe is a category two ingredient, meaning that it's safe but not proven effective, functional claims cannot be made. "There is an attitude, 'If I can't make any functional claims on it, why should I bother putting it in at more than a drop. And if I'm only going to put it in at a drop, why do I care if the stuff is real or good quality.' The buyer beware is underlined in this industry."
Adulteration has always been the black cloud hanging over the aloe industry. Because there are no governmental identity standards for aloe (neither the USDA nor the FDA have quality standards for aloe), safety is the responsibility of both the raw material supplier and the final product manufacturer following standards set by federal GMP regulations for food safety. According to Terry Labs' Mr. Gambino, adulteration is the biggest issue facing the industry. "Our laboratory analyzes seven to 10 samples per week from customers and we find about 50% are adulterated," he said.
Aloecorp's Mr. Jones discussed adulteration through an example. "In the past there were several instances of adulteration with maltodextrin used to supplement polysaccharide content because many raw material providers were not able to retain aloe polysaccharides in their manufacturing method or they were significantly over-processed, which causes aloe polysaccharides to become severely degraded," he said.
Instances of adulteration have been reduced due to the efforts of the International Aloe Science Council (IASC), Irving, TX, which offers certification of authentic aloe. Mr. Jones said the certification program consists of a set of standards for composition that authenticates raw material as true aloe. These standards include defined levels of solids, minerals, pH and the presence of acetylated polysaccharides. Manufacturers must submit samples of their products for analysis and representatives of the IASC must have on-site inspections.
Mr. Meadows said the most alarming form of adulteration is coming from companies misrepresenting whole leaf aloe gel as inner gel fillet aloe and then charging inner fillet prices. "While the IASC has cracked down on fraudulent companies and placed a consumer friendly seal on certified products, no system is perfect," he said. "My suggestion is to try and regulate the quality of aloe by following an audit trail procedure in the same manner as the internal revenue service (IRS) and the food industry. The way that they can ensure that the product is what they're actually selling is by following a paper trail from the farm in addition to inspections and chemical analysis."