Five years ago, most people would have dismissed the notion that a wild berry growing on the East Coast would soon be a sought-after over-the-counter health product for American men. But that was before word got around that European clinical trials had confirmed that the chemicals in the saw palmetto berry dramatically reduce enlarged prostates.
"Now it's such a hot seller that we almost can't keep it on our shelves," says Robin Rogosin, herbal specialist for the organic store Mrs. Gooch's.
Five years ago, the Ginseng Co. of Simi Valley began to hear from working women suffering from low energy. The company came up with Ginseng for Women, a mix of ginseng and other herbs long used in Asia and Russia. Ginseng for Women appealed far beyond the old herbal market of "former hippies" and is now the company's top seller. "People who'd gone through the whole empirical regime and hadn't been helped started to say, 'Maybe herbs would do something for me,' " says company founder Rick Siebert.
The signs that herbs are being embraced by American consumers are everywhere. For the first time, the American Pharmaceutical Assn. has devoted a chapter in its Handbook of Nonprescription Drugs to herbs and plant-derived drugs. Herbal remedies are now the fastest-growing product category in some drugstores, and one manufacturer plans an $11-million launch of a single herbal product later this year.
In 1993, Oregon-based Payless-Thrifty became the first big chain to join the trend, says Joe Potts, divisional merchandise manager for health, beauty and fashion. "We toured the world, scoured local health food stores and malls and did surveys. Personally, I was surprised by how hot these items were. Now our sales are exceeding expectations."
An inspection of the towering aisle of herbal products at Mrs. Gooch's in Sherman Oaks illustrates the boom. The organic store is jammed with 96 linear feet of shelves devoted to herbs--double the amount of space five years ago--and herbal sales have roughly tripled since 1990.
Rogosin recently returned from rural Washington, where the Trout River Farm, a large organic herb grower, has devoted 1,000 acres to supply the boom. "Those of us from the late '70s who seriously studied herbs are feeling really vindicated," says Rogosin, pointing to dozens of garlic products on a nearby shelf. "There were probably 50 articles in medical journals this year on how onions and garlic reduce platelet aggregation--the stickiness that can lead to arterial sclerosis. We are finally seeing the American medical community saying this does work."
Echinacea may not be a household word yet, but it's the best selling herb at Mrs. Gooch's. Derived from the purple cone flower of the American plains, Echinacea (pronounced ecka-nayzha) is widely used by Native Americans to fight infection. Thirty years of German research has shown that the plant contains high levels of polysaccharides--carbohydrates that stimulate a strong immune response in humans.
"Many herbalists believe echinacea is the best thing to use with very, very early symptoms before you get hit full force with a cold or flu," Rogosin says. "It's a strong taste, so plug your nose and drink it down."
Insure Herbal, a product from Santa Monica-based Zand Herbal Formulas, combines echinacea and a Native American root known as goldenseal. It is "probably the No. 1 herb seller nationally," Rogosin says. "Once winter hits, we will go through 144 bottles of it a week at this store."
Consumers buy herbs in three forms--tablets, tea bags or an alcohol-based tincture that comes with a dropper. During early October, with hot Santa Ana winds blasting dust and pollen through Los Angeles, customers were buying such tablets as Rainbow Light's PollinPlex, a combination of goldenseal, nettles and eyebright--wild U.S. herbs that reduce allergic reactions without causing dryness or jitters.
Rogosin attributes the sudden interest in herbs to the public's deepening frustration with traditional medicine. Sales are hottest among well-educated, middle-class consumers who are reading herbal books and magazines, and published medical studies from Europe, Russia and Japan.
"People come to us disillusioned," Rogosin says. "They say: 'I have arthritis, I have terrible cramps, I have bad side effects from cancer, what should I do?' We recommend they see a doctor and they say, 'Believe me, I have.' "
Rogosin and others stress that consumers should consult holistic doctors or trained herbalists before using herbs for any serious illnesses. Herbal products still face skepticism in some quarters, especially among those who recall exaggerated claims based mostly on anecdotes made by some practitioners in the past.
Many herbal proponents believe that, despite restriction upon the industry by the federal Food and Drug Administration, which prohibits curative claims about herbs, herbal products will one day become as popular among Americans as jogging or popping vitamins.