Aloe Vera Historic Healer Meets Modern Innovation

By Joyce Steel

Aloe vera has a longstanding reputation as a healing agent. Indeed, it was one of Cleopatra’s most treasured beauty secrets. Around 1500 B.C. the ancient Egyptians recorded using it for healing burns and wounds, calling it “the plant of immortality.” It was included as funerary gifts in the tombs of the Pharaohs, and crude drawings of it were found etched on pyramid walls. Today, many refer to aloe vera as “the potted physician,” noting its wide-ranging external and internal benefits.

There are 240-plus different species of aloe, but only four are recognized as having some nutritional benefit for human health. Of these four, it is the Barbadensis miller aloe vera species that offers far and away the most beneficial compounds within its spiky, cactus-like leaves. The gel inside these leaves is made up of 99.5 percent water and .5 percent solids; incredibly, the aloe solids are then comprised of more than 200 different compounds.

Despite its similarity to cacti, aloe is actually a member of the Lily family, and grows vigorously in warm, dry regions, such as in Texas, California and Florida, as well as Mexico, Africa and South America. A hardy species, aloe can survive severe droughts and heatwaves of up to and above 104 degrees Fahrenheit, as well freezing air temperatures–as long as the ground does not freeze. (Many in the aloe industry recall the devastation of the winter of 1983-84 in the Rio Grande Valley, when a sustained freeze wiped out 95 percent of the U.S. aloe vera crop.)

Aloe: Past to Present
Like many of nature’s most promising herbs, Aloe vera has spent the centuries since Cleopatra’s reign in relative obscurity where traditionally accepted Western medical practices are concerned. Yet, also like many natural substances, modern science, research, and a renewed interest in natural medicine have combined to thrust aloe vera into the spotlight. Since the 1930s, it has progressed from folklore to a serious scientific substance.

According to Mick Anderson, president of the raw supplier AloeCorp in Broomfield, CO, the modern use of aloe vera as a healing substance began as a result of the invention of the X-ray machine and the atomic bomb. In fact, Anderson stated, the United States Army is credited with advancing aloe’s reputation as a healer in this country in the mid-20th century, when it began using the gel of the plant, which soldiers found growing wild in Cuba, on X-ray burn victims.

He noted that by the late 1980s, Glamour magazine confirmed the prominence of aloe vera in the U.S. market, when a published poll of its readership listed aloe vera second only to Vitamin E as the ingredient most of them looked for in a quality skincare product.

Gene Hale, president of the International Aloe Science Council (IASC), an industry standards “watchdog” group, believes that it’s the scientific evidence of aloe vera’s efficacy that is the key to its burgeoning popularity. The emphasis on research has helped suppliers understand aloe’s bioactivity, and given consumers the confidence and incentive to purchase and use the herb. “Today,” Hale commented, “we have reams of scientific papers to help pluck it from the historical past, and thrust it into the rapidly evolving nutraceuticals arena.”

One of the studies that elevated aloe vera’s status as one of the most widely used and accepted herb was a review published in 1988 in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, which confirms that aloe vera contains antibacterial and antifungal compounds, and finds the use of aloe vera beneficial for radiation ulcers (X-ray burns), other burn injuries, and even frostbite.

Another study, sponsored by the IASC and presented at its annual meeting last month, suggests an ability of aloe vera to act as a conductor for other nutrients in the body. According to Bill Pine, vice president of the raw materials supplier Improve USA in DeSoto, TX, and president of the IASC, researchers at Texas A&M determined that internal supplementation with aloe vera aided in the absorption of vitamins C and E in the control group.

Topical Topic
Terry Laboratories, a raw material supplier in Florida, used cutting-edge TestSkinª technology to establish the topical efficacy and safety of its own aloe vera gels at several concentrations without the use of animal subjects. The skin cells are grown in vitro, creating a study subject known as Living Skin Equivalent (LSE). The results of these LSE studies show that the aloe vera tested was non-toxic, and stimulated skin cell growth as much as fourfold over placebo in a dose-concentration manner.

AloeCorp’s Anderson added that, while the use of topical aloe vera is still the major, growing segment of the market, “the scientific understanding of how aloe vera can help, going far beyond the traditional after-sun care that everybody knows, is definitely advancing.”

One of the more innovative developments in the science of aloe vera has come from Unigen Pharmaceuticals in Broomfield, CO. According to Bruce Burnett, PhD, director of research and development, Unigen has begun marketing a substance called Aloewhite, a skin-lightening ingredient made from whole-leaf aloe vera, to cosmetics manufacturers. Aloewhite is a result of Unigen-sponsored research that discovered aloe vera can inhibit the stimulation of melanocytes, the cells that create melanin, or skin color. “This will be a valuable ingredient for skin lightening cosmetics, sunscreens, and even some cream treatments for hyperpigmentation, age spots and the like,” Burnett said.

Functional Beverages
The main new area of interest is the functional beverage market. The first step in opening this market has been to unlock the synergistic secrets of those 200+ compounds that make up the Aloe leaf’s .5% solids ratio.

But what about taste? It’s important, most Industry sources agree, but it can be controlled well by ensuring the proper processing of the consumable raw material. Two factors that can lead to a bitter-tasting raw material, they say, are too much aloin (the bitter compound in aloe vera), and too much preservative, particularly citric acid. The functional beverages on the market today offer both flavored and “green” versions, leaving the subject of taste up to the consumer.

More research has been done to pinpoint the usefulness of ingesting aloe vera, by focusing on the bioavailability of the polysaccharides. A study by Unigen Pharmaceuticals indicates that the molecular weight of the polysaccharide chain is the key to its benefit, with a mw range of 50,000-200,000 resulting in a 75 percent improvement in immune response. Molecular weights above 200,000 contributed to an average 25 percent increase in immune response, while those below the ideal range increased immune response by just 6-15 percent, according to the study.

The polysaccharide content of the aloe gel is of particular interest to researchers, since polysaccharides are gaining widespread attention as superior antioxidants that effectively boost immune function, even in severely immunocompromised patients. A study published in the August, 2002 journal Anticancer Research found that polysaccharides offer anticancer, immunotherapeutic and biological response modifying benefits, and recommended that these substances be considered as adjuvant therapies for a variety of illnesses.

Processing and Other Challenges
It’s the processing of aloe vera that determines the molecular weight of the polysaccharides–along with a variety of other bioavailability and health benefit factors–in the finished product. This has brought the subject of processing to the forefront in the Industry as well. Today, many of the top quality grower-suppliers have initial processing centers right in the middle of their aloe vera fields.

Also of current interest to aloe vera suppliers are new techniques in processing, which can help protect more of the plant’s active compounds; and make the finished products that contain them much more effective. “If you don’t process aloe in a timely manner after it’s removed from the plant, it will cause beneficial properties to be reduced greatly,” pointed out Hale.

He added, “If excess heat is added during processing, you will find a breakdown of polysaccharide chains, and the benefits can again be reduced. The value of the aloe is equated with time and process.”

Unsurprisingly, the diversified growth in the aloe vera industry has led to other challenges as well, sources stated. A lack of standards for raw materials suppliers created confusion for finished goods makers, and invited some suppliers to provide substandard materials at a fraction of the cost of quality aloe, according to the IASC.

These conditions prompted the group to embark on a two-year study of the properties of aloe vera, conducted at Texas A&M University’s Department of Agriculture, and to use the findings to establish a certification procedure for raw suppliers. The procedure tests four parameters–calcium, magnesium, total solids and L-malic acid–to determine the aloe’s quality, and suppliers can send samples in each year to renew their certification. Hale noted that the L. malic acid test is often the most helpful, because “the malic acid will convert to lactic acid–or the ratio of lactic acid will increase–if poor timing is involved, if there is a lack of refrigeration, delay in handling, high temperature or pressure, etc.”

Yet, some in the Industry believe that the process must do more. AloeCorp’s Anderson would like to see the process ensure that manufacturers are “making quality aloe vera every day of the year” (alluding to the fact that only one batch of aloe leaves is tested each year in order to certify a manufacturer for that entire period) by incorporating random field testing.

Many manufacturers take the initiative to show their customers proof of quality and purity. Some perform independent scientific analyses of their own batches, and provide copies to the buyers upon requests. Still other suppliers will recommend labs to their customers where independent testing can be done, and may even foot the bill for such analysis, which typically costs about $200.

Hale notes that, as in most industries, aloe vera buyers must be very aware (perhaps even skeptical) of claims that seem too good to be true. The IASC seal is proprietary, and is legally only used by those manufacturers that have been certified by the group. Consumers must “be careful of the manufacturers that claim they are certified, but don’t have our seal on their packaging or materials,” he said. Buying aloe vera from an IASC-certified supplier also entitles the product manufacturer to use that seal on its packaging.

In spite of these challenges, most aloe experts agree that, because of the more than 2,000 research studies into the effects of aloe vera on myriad aspects of human health, retailers will continue to find a brisk customer base for this popular, multifaceted herb, making it an attractive addition to product lines both in supplements and in functional beverages. NIE

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