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Medicinal Herb Profile

By Malinda Geisler, content specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University.

Revised April 2012.


Medicinal herbs, some of the oldest medicines known to man, continue to be a major market and constitute a multi-billion dollar industry.

Herbs may be grown in a field, raised bed, greenhouse, containers, hydroponically or in the forest. Production requires a few acres of land. Herb crops may be sold wholesale, through farmers’ markets or through direct sales.

Herbs are a subset of botanicals, which are plants valued for medicinal or therapeutic properties, flavor and/or scent. They are sold in many forms: liquid or solid extracts; fresh or dried; tablets, capsules, powders or tea bags. Leading uses for herbal remedies include colds, burns, headaches, allergies, rashes, insomnia, premenstrual syndrome, depression, diarrhea and menopause.

Approximately 1,500 botanicals are sold as dietary supplements or ethnic traditional medicines. However, herbal formulations do not go through premarket toxicity testing by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure safety or efficacy. Since 1998, the National Toxicology Program has worked with the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, FDA, academia and others to define and implement research to address herbal medicines and their potential toxicities.

U.S. prescription drug sales were $320 billion in 2011. Sales of herbal products and dietary supplements totaled more than $5.1 billion in 2010, according to the American Botanical Council. Herbal and botanical products were part of the $28.7 billion in annual dietary supplement sales in the United States in 2010, according to Nutrition Business Journal.

The market for medicinal herbs is estimated at more than $3 billion, according to the Medicinal Plant Working Group. More than 60 million U.S. consumers take herbal remedies.

The aging U.S. population is a contributing factor to the increase in supplement sales. Baby Boomers are seeking a more holistic approach to their health care.

There is widespread use of supplements, especially among senior citizens, according to Moshe Frenkel, MD, an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Use of supplements among consumers over age 65 has doubled, according to Frenkel. Most of the supplement use is self-initiated and is done without physician approval. Frenkel says some supplements are okay, while others may have harmful effects. According to a 2009 survey conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, 65 percent of adult Americans, or approximately 150 million people, label themselves supplement users.

With growing interest in medical alternatives, physicians and pharmacists are taking herbs, dietary supplements and other self-care options into account. For example, the American Pharmacists Association published the 16th edition of the Handbook of Nonprescription Drugs in April 2009. The textbook includes a comprehensive examination of all self-care options, including nutritional supplements and herbal medications.

Another concern is possible drug-herb interactions. In one University of Chicago survey, up to 50 percent of patients scheduled for surgery were using herbal remedies that might have caused surgical complications if their physicians were unaware of the use.


American Botanical Council.

AphA Publishes 17th Edition of Handbook of Nonprescription Drugs, American Pharmacists Association, 2012 - The handbook has a supporting Web site, http://www.pharmacylibrary.com/otchandbook.

Dietary Supplements: Onward & Upward?, Nutriceuticals World, April 2012.

Dietary Supplements, U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Herbal Med Use up Despite Little Proof of Safety, Health, MSNBC, 2009.

Herbal Sales up 3.3% in 2010, American Botanical Council, 2011.

Herbs and Spices: Hot and Healthy, Food Product Design, 2008 - A number of herbs are under investigation for their health benefits.

Nature's Healing Pharmacy, Green Medicine, Medicinal Plant Working Group, Plant Conservation Alliance.

Supplement Sales Continue Strong Growth Tragectory in 2010, Nutrition Business Journal, 2010.

U.S. Prescription Spending Barely up in 2011, The Washington Post with Bloomberg, 2012.


Links checked March 2014.


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