Ancient Egyptians revered aloe vera as the "plant of immortality," perhaps because they may not have had to preserve the plant and ship it to worldly acquaintances. Aloe is one of the most delicate and perishable plants in the world. The fragility of the plant leads to a dilemma that manufacturers continually face: how to harvest the plant cost-effectively and quickly, without compromising quality.
While the health benefits of aloe are well known, the exertion needed in its extraction process is not. Brands that may purchase aloe in easy-to-use gels and powders aren't necessarily aware of how challenging it is for manufacturers to process aloe. "Undoubtedly, aloe vera gels and powders offer many advantages in shipping, handling, and convenience for companies," says David Nelson, international sales manager for Terry Labs (Melbourne, FL). "But the challenge for us is to be able to produce these types of products without any loss of aloe's health benefits."
Harvest Season: Breaking It Down
Aloe vera is considered mature to harvest at approximately three years of age, and its leaves are generally processed within three hours of harvesting. The major challenge in processing aloe vera is collecting and storing its juices without chemically altering the product. When an aloe leaf is cut, it secretes enzymes that heal the severed tissues. However, after a few hours, these same enzymes also begin the decomposition process. The best solution for ensuring the maximum biological potency of aloe is to process, stabilize, and preserve the leaf within the optimal time frame of its removal from the plant.
The process begins one leaf at a time. The leaves from the outermost edge of the plant are generally chosen first and removed by creating an incision at the bottom of the leaf, nearest to the stalk. The leaves are immediately packed and transported to an on-site processing plant to be prepared for stabilization.
When the whole leaves of the aloe plant are ground up to make a liquid, the majority of what's left is 99.52% water and excess fiber, containing only 0.48% active ingredients. That means that companies must act at lightning-fast speeds to filter and concentrate the juice in order to maximize the active ingredients.
WHAT DREAMS ARE MADE OF
A PERFECT NIGHT of sleep to some might entail a good book and a glass of milk, but Natura World Inc. hopes a night of rest on its aloe vera–infused pillow is all you'll need. The idea is simple: sleep on a pillow whose cover is enriched with aloe vera and wake up to softer, suppler skin. The pillow is being touted as just the thing for those who battle both acne and wrinkles. The pillow's 100%-cotton removable cover is treated with aloe vera and has a wool liner, which serves to wick sweat from skin and kill off bacteria. And according to Natura, the pillow's latex core is extremely springy. "I really like the idea," said New York dermatologist Doris J. Day, MD. "Aloe is soothing and antiseptic. I also like the other material that helps keep excess moisture away from the skin-the wool lining. I would just want to feel it to make sure it's soft enough and not irritating to the skin."
It is precisely this manufacturing step of filtering and concentrating aloe juice where innovation comes along. The newest advancements in aloe manufacturing have dealt exactly with that problem. "So far this year, many companies have been looking for really creative and new ways to stabilize aloe vera after harvest," says Devon Powell, executive director of the International Aloe Science Council (Silver Spring, MD).
Some companies have implemented advanced manufacturing methods such as enzyme-free processing, and aloe concentration via reverse osmosis without heat to maximize both the size and quantity of the long-chain polysaccharides present in aloe vera.
Polysaccharides have been shown to exhibit antiviral activity and enhance immune cell function when taken orally, "so anything we can do to prevent the breakdown of polysaccharides results in a product that maximizes the health benefits to the consumer," says Nelson of Terry Labs, whose company has just begun to use this process. While these types of processing techniques are costly to develop, they also enable aloe manufacturers to output a quality product that, as Nelson says, "customers can take comfort in knowing isn't cheap."
Another way companies are trying to preserve aloe's benefit is in the way the plant is dried. A new drying system used by Aloecorp (Keene, NH), called Qmatrix, was built to retain heat-sensitive nutritional, functional aloe components, and also promote polysaccharide preservation. "The dryer is designed to retain a higher degree of aloe freshness and biological activity," says Jeff Barrie, Aloecorp's eastern regional sales manager.
New Aloe Applications
"Companies are consistently coming up with new ways to utilize aloe," says Powell, calling attention to the fact that the preservation systems that aloe suppliers are able to explore allow manufacturers to use high-quality aloe in creative, new ways in their products.
One way to do this is to turn green-literally. Concentrated Aloe Corp. (CAC; Ormond Beach, FL) has been working for the past 18 months to offer a complete range of organically certified raw materials, which it hopes will reinforce the quality of its services.
"Right now, companies have a limited R&D budget; therefore we are working on assisting our customers in the formulation of new product lines," says Tim Meadows, sales manager of CAC.
"As the demand for organically certified products increases, we are seeing an increase of certified raw materials," he says. "Companies are looking for actual and verifiable certification of aloe products, not just a statement on the product's information sheet."
While there are more than 50 species of aloe in the world, mostly native to Africa, new species not used widely in commercial applications, such as aloe hijazensis, found in Saudi Arabia, are also being studied and are yielding new bioactive compounds, says Powell.
In terms of new areas of cultivation, Powell points out that many foreign countries such as India are looking for new sources of economic stimulation. "This crop has proven to be a boon for many so far, including Mexico, Costa Rica, and even some areas in the Bahamas," he says.
One of the newest applications of aloe vera is its inclusion in sports and energy drinks such as Adina for Life's new ayurvedic drink line, which includes a 14-oz Honey Lemon Aloe "thirst quencher." This is in part due to new studies conducted by the Herminio Ometto University Center in Brazil that have linked aloe with boosted immune function and gut health. The study also suggested aloe's role in modulating blood sugar levels, enhancing the bioavailability of vitamins C, E, B12, and the ORAC capacity of blood plasma. These benefits may allow manufacturers to market products containing aloe vera juice with new, healthier claims.
"These types of benefits are becoming increasingly important as consumers look to maintain and improve their health naturally," says Powell.
Standardization and the Future
The International Aloe Science Council expects to see more standardization come from the industry as the council and its members work on their own to create a monograph for aloe vera juice that will relate to compliance and quality standards.
The council is currently looking at ways to work with the United States Pharmacopeia (Rockville, MD) in its potential creation of this very monograph on aloe vera. "These monographs are items that we believe will be highly desired and utilized by industry and regulators," says Powell, who adds that the market for aloe vera next year looks very promising.
"I'd speculate the market for aloe vera in 2010 will likely look similar to how it appears now, though judging by cultivation, consistent demand should definitely grow," Powell says.