Heavy metals are a loosely defined group of elements that are naturally occurring in the Earth’s crust that have a density of greater than or equal to 5 grams per cubic centimeter. They bioaccumulate in vegetable sources, as well as in air and water, and can have deleterious effects on human health when consumed in large quantities, or through consistent prolonged exposure. However, it should be noted that minimal, daily exposure is inevitable due to the fact that these heavy metals naturally occur in water, fruits, and vegetables. Even though the body is equipped to deal with certain amounts of everyday exposure, it is important to manage and limit exposure as well. While the safe allowable limits of heavy metals are often fluctuating and are without a scientific consensus, the elements mercury, lead, and arsenic tends to have the most consistent data, with their safe allowable limits being not more than 1 part per million, 20 parts per million, and 3 parts per million, respectively. In the supplement industry, there is great concern over the monitoring of heavy metals in their products. This is with good reason, as there have been reported cases of heavy metal toxicity related to some herbal products. Similarly, Ayurvedic herbal products in particular have been highlighted for their potential high accumulations of lead. In order to combat these concerns, transparency, honesty, and dedication are needed by suppliers in order to ensure the safety of the public and to allow important health-promoting supplements to stay on the market. To accomplish this, one must look at heavy metals in the supply chain and how to test for them.
Heavy metals are found in virtually all plant products, and the policing of their allowable limits varies between industries. For instance, cosmetics may contain up to 3ppm of arsenic while produce is allowed up to 10ppm[i]. There are many reasons for these inconsistencies which are largely based on the ever-evolving science of human biology and heavy metals along with political and industrial pressures which all participate in the determination of allowable levels. Some states, such as California, have their own restrictions and limitations focused largely on any potential carcinogenic traits of a substance; however, many substances on California’s prop 65 list lack any human evidence of carcinogenicity[ii]. This example is to demonstrate that there are still flaws in how we regulate heavy metals; nevertheless, this shouldn’t exempt manufacturers from their responsibility to the people they serve.
Testing, transparency, and good manufacturing processes are extremely important for the supplement industry, which in the USA is the main distributor of botanical supplements whose use might otherwise have fallen into obscurity. Botanical supplements would be in danger of disappearing if manufacturers fail to meet safety standards. At Ayush Herbs, we utilize a multi-step testing process from seed to shelf in order to ensure heavy metal levels stay well below the required standards. First, the soil is tested for its nutrient density, including heavy metals. Then each herb batch is grown and tested using thin-layer chromatography, high-performance liquid chromatography, and ultraviolet spectrophotometry methods to establish purity, potency, and consistency. After this, the harvested herbs are tested, extracted, and tested again before becoming a capsule or tablet. Our finished product is then tested a final time to ensure quality and purity. During this process, third-party labs are used twice to instill confidence in our formulas and to ensure compliance with federal good manufacturing regulations, FDA protocols, and the National Sanitation Foundation’s strict guidelines. Finally, the product is released to the public with the assurance of safety for use regarding pesticides, heavy metals, microbial, and any other impurities.
This dedication to repeated testing has been brought on by our own experiences rejecting poor quality materials for use in our products. When a batch of herbs arrives, it can at times be hard to discern its quality strictly through observation, which is why testing must be done. This fact has even spurred the decision to start a farm in the pristine Himachal Pradesh region of India and to work with farmers to ensure the least possible contaminations were entering into the manufacturing process. That farm was started in 1989 with purity, sustainability, and potency as its guiding principles. Today, most raw materials in our products come from our farms and are still subjected to the same multitude of testing to ensure low levels of heavy metals, absence of pesticides, and freedom from impurities.
It is worth repeating that heavy metals are naturally occurring in air, soil, and water, and will bioaccumulate in plants, even in the absence of industrial pollution such as in the foothills of Himachal Pradesh. That said, by utilizing organic farming methods and vigilant testing procedures, the incidence of heavy metals decreases well below required limits. Moreover, through repeated testing and rigorous record-keeping, we hope to create a sense of well-being and ease for customers and to ensure that there will always be safe, potent, and high-quality Ayurvedic supplements available for generations to come.
[i] The American Herbal Products Association. Heavy Metals: Analysis and Limits in Herbal Dietary Supplements. December 2009.
[ii] Campaign for Accuracy in Public Health Research. Prop 65: How IARC’s Flawed Science Has Negative Policy Implications for Americans. 2021. https://campaignforaccuracyinpublichealthresearch.com/prop-65-how-iarcs-flawed-science-has-negative-policy-implications-for-americans/