The New Flavor of Wellness and Energy
Tulsi, also known as holy basil, is a perfect fit for supplement and functional food formulations.
By Paul Altaffer & Grant Washington-Smith
In the bustling market for energy products, most of the attention usually goes to stimulant ingredients and flashy packaging. But there is another side of the energy market that promotes wellness and balance as opposed to quick pick-me-ups.
Many of the botanicals marketed in the “other” energy market fall under a category of plants known as adaptogens, which, simply stated, assist the body in adapting to a variety of different stress factors and adjust metabolism accordingly. As one might expect, there are many adaptogens in the market. But few of them possess the rich tradition of use in food and medicine that tulsi, or holy basil, does.
Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum syn. O. sanctum or O. gratissimum) is most popular in India, where it is considered to be the most sacred of herbs. In fact, it is called “Queen of Herbs,” “Sacred Basil” or “Incomparable One.” Tulsi is native to much of Asia, especially tropical Asia, but is thought to have originated in India. It is comprised of three primary varieties of holy basil (Rama, Krishna and Vana varieties).
Tulsi’s traditional use spans several millennia, with references to it dating back to 1500 BC. It traveled to Europe on early trade routes from the Orient, where it became known by some as the “King of Herbs.” The name basil actually comes from the Greek word for “royalty” (i.e., basilikos, which translates to: above all else, wise, learned and enlightened).
Holy basil is one of the anchors of Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine systems, which is why it is used for a broad variety of food and medicinal applications. Tulsi is also used ceremonially, to cleanse and purify, as well as topically for its anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties. It is even used as an insect repellent. Today it has reached near panacea status throughout much of Asia.
Combining Traditional Wisdom with Science
There are numerous (animal and human) studies that seem to lend validity to claims that tulsi is an adaptogen and that it has antioxidant, antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, blood glucose control, anti-stress and other health properties.
In one double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study on mild-to-moderate arterial hypertension, tulsi produced a significant fall in systolic and diastolic blood pressure. In another, it demonstrated a significant positive effect on chronic fatigue.
Tulsi contains a considerable amount of volatile oils, which give the herb its strong aromatic and flavor characteristics. It contains eugenol as well as methyl eugenol and caryophyllene. Other compounds that may have pharmacological activity include ursolic acid, rosmarinic acid, cirsilineol, cirsimaritin, isothymusin saponins, apigenin, luteolin, phenylpropane glucosides and tannins.
The question is how does all this information on its properties relate to energy? Normal energy levels have a lot to do with one’s capacity to adapt to stress, to deal with inflammation, altered mood and hormonal states, and to combat oxidative stress. Holy basil seems to have a positive effect on a variety of these contributing factors.
Agriculture, Sustainability and Empowering Women
Holy Basil grows throughout much of the world, especially in warmer climates. Nowhere does it seem quite at home as in India, where it is believed to have originated. Farming is one of India’s principle businesses and its primary employer. In states like Uttar Pradesh farming is the main occupation, employing nearly three-quarters of the population. It is also very poor, shining a spotlight on the social and economic inequalities of India. Women, for example, are unfairly treated, earning significantly less than men, having little or no access to health and education, and suffer from a variety of discriminations.
Thanks to the work of companies like Organic India and the Organic India Foundation that paradigm is shifting. Its programs promote the sustainable, organic cultivation of tulsi, employing women, establishing collectives, and improving social and economic standards, along with healthcare and education. Gina Coccari, regional sales manager for Organic India USA, explained the importance of these programs. “Organic India’s mission to expand organic and sustainable agriculture while empowering small families, especially women farmers in India through the cultivation of tulsi is an exemplary model for social and economic fairness in the natural products trade,” she said. “Other companies employing similar business and farming practices are helping to elevate social and economic fairness thereby helping to establish a new business model. We help rural Indian farmers grow certified organic, sustainable crops that are native to the regions that they are grown in.”
Applications for Tulsi
Tulsi is a close relative of the common cooking herb sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum). While sweet basil has a milder flavor, reminiscent of licorice, holy basil is spicier, reminiscent of cloves. The interesting and unique flavor of tulsi makes it an excellent ingredient for use in a variety of functional food applications. The most common use for tulsi, though, is as a tea. It is as a beverage that holy basil may offer its greatest product development promise—caffeine-free energy and wellness.
A quick search for tulsi and holy basil on I-Herb (iherb.com) yielded several pages of product results.
Examples of products that contain tulsi include:
Tea products as single ingredients or in formulas; Organic India
Capsules (including soft gel) as single ingredients or formulas from companies like New Chapter, Now Foods, Gaia Herbals, Himalaya USA, Planetary Herbals, Nature’s Way and others
In tincture form from companies like Herb Pharm and Gaia Herbals
In herbal formulas, including New Chapter’s popular Zyflamend
In ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages and shots like TruBoost from Life Force
Tulsi can also be found in various skin care products
Mary Mulry, president of FoodWise, an industry consultancy, has developed some unique new products involving tulsi. She recently formulated an energy shot drink for Life Force called TruBoost. “We were looking for a unique perspective into the energy category, one that would resonate with people who have caffeine sensitivity, and especially women,” she said. “Tulsi was the perfect base for this product because it has spicy notes, making it compatible with other spices and flavors such as peach, lemon and ginger. The different species of tulsi have different notes with some more basil, some more minty and others more lemony. Tulsi is an adaptogen that works well with other herbs and nutrients.”