The Informed Consumer’s Guide to Buying Quality Herbs & Teas
If you are concerned about the health and nutritional content of the food you purchase, you probably choose organic over non-organic, read labels diligently, and carefully choose the brightest, best-looking fruits and vegetables available at your local market. Do you apply the same scrutiny when buying bulk herbs or loose-leaf tea? Do you know how to tell the difference between an herb rich in health and nutrients and one that lacks energy and vitality? In many ways it’s common sense and relies on skills you already have. However, I have discovered that many consumers who are otherwise careful about the health and quality of the food they purchased do not apply the same level of care when it comes to buying bulk herbs and loose-leaf tea. I created this informed consumer’s guide to buying quality herbs and teas so you can make the best buying decisions when it comes to stocking your herbal medicine cabinet.
How to Buy Quality Herbs and Teas
First, is it certified organic or not? Just like your produce, if it’s not labeled organic, it’s fair to assume its “conventional,” which means it has probably been grown using chemical fertilizers and pesticides and may still carry that potentially harmful residue. You may also encounter dried herbs that are “wildcrafted” or “wild-harvested.” This means the plant was harvested wherever nature allowed it to grow, rather than cultivated by people. Herbs ethically wildcrafted in clean environments may be of excellent quality and potency. If you are curious about wildcrafting or foraging, you can learn more about ethical principles in this article, Independence, Interdependence & Herbal Medicine-Making.
Get to Know the Herb
Next, when buying loose or bulk herbs, bring a bit of prior knowledge about the herb. First, know the botanical or scientific name of the herb and expect to find that name on the bulk herb jar or package. This is simply reading the label, something you’re probably already doing when you buy food. All herbs have both common names and botanical names. Knowing the botanical name ensures that you’re buying the right plant. It’s also important to know which part of the herb is used medicinally. Different parts sometimes have different therapeutic properties. So, know if you are looking for the flowers, the leaves, the bark or seeds. This is common sense, but you can learn more about why this is so important in this article, Capsule, Tea, Oil or Extract: A Guide to the Many Forms of Herbal Medicine.
Trust Your Senses
Now the fun part! The most valuable tools you have to evaluate the quality of bulk herbs and loose-leaf tea are your senses—use your eyes, your nose, and your tastes buds. High quality loose or bulk herbs, whether single herbs or blended to make a tea, should closely resemble the fresh plant in color, texture, fragrance and taste. If you don’t know what the plant looks like fresh, Google it or purchase a medicinal herb guide or local plant book. Although they have been dried, buying quality herbs and teas is no different than choosing a banana or head of lettuce. You probably already do this when you buy fresh fruits and vegetables. You skip over the brown, bruised bananas, you choose a head of lettuce that is green and crisp, not wilted, and you hold the melon to your nose to find one that smells rich and sweet. It’s even better when you can sample a bright, crisp apple or juicy plum at the farmer’s market. So, what does this mean for bulk herbs and loose-leaf tea? Let’s look at some examples.
Chamomile | Matricaria recutita
Chamomile, also known as German Chamomile, grows as a small sweet flower, with a large yellow center, petite white petals and a fine green feathery foliage. The flowers, used to make tea, are rich in fragrant oils that relax the nervous system, aid digestion and promote a healthy inflammatory response.
A high-quality bulk or loose chamomile rich in therapeutic compounds, should contain the yellow flower centers, a little light green foliage, and a sweet, earthy fragrance. Consider these samples—all purchased in the small town where I live.
The sample on the left shows all of qualities of a vibrant, properly harvested, carefully dried herb. Note the flowers, colors and texture. In the middle sample, the entire herb is a brown monotone color. This is either very old (even though I purchased it a month before this article was written) or it was poorly dried, allowing for oxidation and decay in the drying process, or it was this sad dead color when it was harvested. The last sample on the right, is also a monotone color and does not appear to contain any of the oil-rich flowers. Imagine you’re choosing the most vibrant produce you can find. Imagine you can smell these samples. Which one would you choose?
Yarrow | Achillea millefolium
Here’s another example using yarrow. Yarrow produces a small, irregular umbrella of fragrant white to cream colored flowers on tall stems. Its foliage is sage green with feathery leaves at the base and along the stalk.
The entire above ground parts of the plant are used medicinally, but it is considered most potent when in flower. Yarrow has a wide range of therapeutic properties from reproductive tonic to cold, flu and first aid remedy.
Now consider these dried yarrow samples. The sample on the left is wildcrafted. I recently purchased the sample on the right. In the high-quality sample on the left the creamy flowers and sage green foliage are visible. Contrast that with the brown, monotone colored sample on the right. Like the chamomile sample above, we can surmise that it was dried poorly or was already dead when it was harvested. We can also surmise that it lacks the therapeutic potency of the sample on the left.
Mullein | Verbascum thapsus
Here’s a similar set of samples of mullein, a common herb used for respiratory support. The furry, sage colored leaves of the fresh plant are obvious in the wildcrafted sample on the leftt. The dark brown, almost black sample on the rightt, purchased recently, bears no resemblance to the live plant and may even have molded in the drying process. Yikes!
So, you’re probably getting an idea what to look for. The more you know about the plant, the more you know what to look for in the dried herb. When it comes to taste, don’t be afraid to ask! The herb shop or market should welcome your assessment of their quality and be willing to let you taste a small sample of the herb.
Loose-Leaf Tea vs. Tea Bags
Evaluating the quality of a loose-leaf tea blend is really no different than evaluating the quality of individual herbs. Look for the individual plant parts shown on the label or jar. Look for vibrant colors and robust fragrance. Unfortunately, if you’re purchasing tea in tea bags sold in boxes, you can’t use your senses to evaluate quality and freshness. If you could, I suspect you would soon switch to loose-leaf tea. So, I recommend that you do a little investigation comparing what’s in the tea bag with the loose herb listed on the ingredient label. You may find something like this.
The fine powder on the right came from a tea bag labeled Chamomile. There may be actual chamomile flowers in the tea bag, but it’s really impossible to tell. You can have much more confidence in the chamomile flowers shown on the left. Here’s another example using a tea blend from a tea bag:
In the example below, the fine powder on the right comes from a tea bag said to contain cinnamon bark, chamomile flowers and lavender flowers. The sample on the left is also made from dried cinnamon bark, chamomile flowers and lavender flowers. Which one do you think would make the best cup of a relaxing herbal tea? If you do this experiment at home, be sure to notice the difference in fragrance and taste, too.
In general, what you’re getting in the tea bag are herbs that have been ground to a consistent size powder. The grinding or processing causes the herbs to lose their freshness and potency more quickly. Some tea companies make their tea bags with organic herbs, which are healthier than non-organic herbs. However, they may still be overly processed and it is almost impossible to know what condition the herb was in before the tea bags were manufactured.
Being an informed consumer of bulk herbs and loose-leaf teas is not difficult. In fact, with a little knowledge and your senses, it can be rather enjoyable to see the rich, vibrant colors, notice the flowers, berries or barks, and inhale the fragrant aromas. At Nectar, we take herb quality very seriously. I welcome you to come in, use your senses, and be sure to ask for a sample of whatever piques your interest – we’re always here to help.
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