All About Aloe: How Do You Know if it's a Good Product?
This turned out to be a very long post, so I have split it into two parts! In this first part, we will talk about how to choose a good quality oral aloe vera product suitable for long term use. In part two, we will learn how to check whether an aloe vera product is really as economical as it might appear.
Some of you might know that long ago, before I became interested in nutrition, I studied maths at university. I actually worked as a maths tutor for many years and have been known to spend leisure time completing old exam papers for fun! This blog post is therefore going to be quite exciting for me, as we will be combining two of my favourite subjects by using maths to compare aloe vera labels! Continuing with the ‘All about Aloe’ series, this instalment explains how to interpret information on aloe vera labels, so that you are better equipped to compare products and prices.
If you are a real mathematician, please be advised from the outset that ratio is often used incorrectly or inconsistently on supplement labels. I’m well aware that mathematically speaking 40:1 means 41 parts or 100:1 means 101 parts. However, on supplement labels, there is significant grey area as to whether 40:1 really means 39:1 and 100:1 really means 99:1. For the purposes of this blog post, I am going to follow accepted industry standards and not nit-pick about the notation itself. If this is unacceptable to you, stop reading now!
Before we get into the maths part, I want to discuss a few things that you ought to look for when choosing oral aloe vera products for long term use. The most important thing to check is that the anthraquinones have been removed. As discussed in this blog post, anthraquinones, including aloin and aloe emodin, are components found in the latex layer of aloe vera leaves that are irritating to the gastrointestinal tract and might even be carcinogenic. If you are choosing an aloe vera product for oral use, it is therefore important to select one that has had the anthraquinones removed. Food supplements containing aloin should not be sold nowadays, meaning all reputable brands should have undergone processes to take out anthraquinones. However, it is best to avoid any brand that does not state its anthraquinone status on its packaging and/or website, or will not tell you explicitly whether the anthraquinones have been removed.
When you look at the packaging of a trustworthy aloe vera brand, certain information should be provided. As a bare minimum, you need to know how much aloe vera you’re getting, at what concentration, and from which part of the leaf. Do not buy any product that does not make this clear. If you are buying a capsule or tablet, the amount of aloe vera powder per item or per serving should be provided. For Tiny Pioneer Aloe 200 and Aloe 600 capsules, I chose to put ‘per capsule’ information on the label, but ‘per serving’ is fine too. If a brand uses ‘per serving’, the label should explicitly tell you how many capsules constitute a serving.
I am always uneasy when a brand gives the quantity of aloe in its capsules or tablets as a fresh equivalent number – it can be very misleading for consumers. To illustrate this, head over to Amazon and do a quick search for aloe vera capsules. You will soon see some brands claiming that they have 5,000mg, 6,000mg, 10,000mg or even 20,000mg products. If you consider that Tiny Pioneer Aloe 600 Capsules are advertised as a high-potency aloe vera product, you might conclude that I am lying and that our 600mg is rubbish and not very potent at all. In actual fact, these brands are not telling you the weight of literal aloe vera powder in their products – they are converting it to fresh aloe equivalent. You can tell this is the case because there are 1,000mg in a gram. A 5,000mg capsule is therefore the same as 5 grams. Although the density of nutraceutical powders varies from product to product, larger capsule shells generally hold about 700mg of ‘stuff’, give or take a few hundred milligrams each way. There is not a capsule shell big enough to hold 5,000mg of aloe vera powder!
To be fair, some of these Amazon brands do make it clear on the label that they have converted to fresh equivalent, but some of them don’t. When you’re choosing an aloe product, make sure you’re absolutely clear about whether the quantity you think you’re purchasing is a literal weight per capsule or is a converted fresh equivalent weight. You can’t make accurate product comparisons if you’re working with different units. We’ll talk in more detail about how the conversions work shortly, but if I converted our Aloe 600 Capsules into fresh aloe equivalent, I’d be advertising them as 120,000mg capsules. I told you they were high-potency!
Reputable brands will tell you which part of the aloe plant you are getting. The International Aloe Science Council advises against using the term ‘whole leaf’ as it feels it misleads consumers in instances where leaves are purified, filtered or treated in any way. Products made from macerated whole leaves, which then undergo filtration are therefore usually described as containing ‘aloe vera from leaf and inner gel’ or similar. Products made from inner fillets (which can also undergo filtration) are usually marked as containing ‘aloe vera from inner leaf’ or similar. We mark ours up as ‘aloe vera juice powder from inner leaf’. We use inner leaf because it is here that acemannan is most abundant. Acemannnan is considered to be the most bio-active polysaccharide in aloe vera and you can read more about it in this blog post.
Personally, I would not purchase an oral aloe vera product if there was ambiguity about which part of the leaf was being used. If you choose a product described as whole leaf, do be extra careful to check that anthraquinones have been removed. I notice that some of the Amazon brands advertise their products as having laxative or colon cleansing properties. For long-term use, I would steer clear of any brand whose product is described as a laxative, as it is anthraquinones that give aloe vera this property. A product without anthraquinones should not act as a laxative.
Another thing to check for when purchasing oral aloe vera products is an ingredients list. Not only do you need to know how much aloe vera you are getting and from which part of the plant, you also need to know if any other ingredients are present. In the UK and EU, active ingredients should be presented in a product information table. There should then be a separate ingredients list which displays the products in descending order, starting with the ingredient that there is most of. Everything used in the product should appear in this ingredients list, including preservatives, fillers, binders, flow agents and anticaking agents. Quantities do not need to be given for inactive ingredients like magnesium stearate, silicon dioxide, rice flour, or maltodextrin, but their presence must be declared. The ingredients table should also let you know what kind of capsule shell is being used, for example gelatine or HPMC.
When buying any kind of supplement, I always recommend checking the ingredients list as well as the product information table, because you want a product to be as ‘clean’ as possible. Nutritionally speaking this does not relate to hygiene, but concerns how many inactive ingredients a product contains. Some people cannot tolerate magnesium stearate or maltodextrin and must avoid products with these ingredients. I personally am intolerant to rice and corn, so must avoid products that use these.
There are various reasons why inactive ingredients might appear in supplements. Fillers are used, as the name suggests, for filling up space! This might be necessary if you don’t need very much active ingredient (for example, in a 1mg copper supplement) – you need something else to put in the tablet or capsule to make the items large enough to handle. Binders are used more in tablets than capsules and they allow the ingredients to stick together in a tablet form. Without binders, tablets would not keep their shape. Anticaking agents are self-explanatory – they stop ingredients from clumping together. Flow agents perform a similar purpose – they make an active ingredient less sticky so that it can flow through the capsule or tablet making machinery properly.
I always try to find supplements that use the least inactive ingredients. Sometimes you can find products that are completely clean. Tiny Pioneer Simply Calci-G is an example of this – each HPMC capsule shell contains calcium glycerophosphate and nothing else. Sometimes it is not possible to encapsulate a product without use of other ingredients because the powder is too sticky or fluffy to flow on its own. Capsules are generally cleaner than tablets, because tablets always require a binder to hold them in shape, whereas capsule shells are self-contained packets that keep their shape. A useful tip when purchasing any nutritional supplement is therefore to search for capsules rather than tablets. If you are open to trying powders, they are often cleaner still, though they are less user-friendly and sometimes taste horrid!
Perhaps the most important thing you need to know in order to compare oral aloe vera products is the concentration of aloe being used. This is where the maths comes in.
Suppose you squeezed the gel out of a fresh aloe vera leaf, adding nothing and taking nothing away. You would have a single concentrate product, so 1 gram of the aloe gel would be equal to 1 gram of aloe gel! However, around 99.5% of this gel is made of water. Only around 0.5% is solid material, including vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and those all-important polysaccharides. In order to get a therapeutic serving size of polysaccharides, you would therefore need to consume a lot of fresh gel.
Let’s say you wanted to consume 600mg of solid aloe material from single-strength juice – the same as found in a single Tiny Pioneer Aloe 600 capsule. Around 0.5% of fresh aloe juice is solids. If we want to consume 600mg of solids and the solids are only worth 0.5% of the fresh gel, then we have:
0.5% = 600mg
1% = 1,200mg
100% = 120,000mg = 120g
That means you would need to drink 120g of fresh aloe vera gel to get the same amount of aloe solids as are present in one Aloe 600 capsule. That’s quite a lot! Remember too that that is just one Aloe 600 capsule’s worth. If you are taking aloe vera to help with interstitial cystitis, you might well be taking six 600mg capsules of aloe vera a day. 6 x 120g = 720g of fresh aloe gel that would be required to consume the same aloe solids as found in six Aloe 600 capsules. I suspect most people would find it very unpleasant to have to drink that each day!
Now imagine that we remove half of the water from fresh aloe vera gel, but leave all the aloe solids in place. We now have a double concentrate product, so 1 gram of product provides the same aloe solids as two grams of fresh gel. This can be denoted as a 2x concentration and it means that you only need to drink half as much liquid to get the same amount of aloe solids.
If we remove still more water, leaving all the aloe solids in place, we could achieve a 4x concentrate liquid, a 10x concentrate liquid, or even a 40x concentrate liquid. Each time we increase the concentration by removing water, we decrease the amount of product you’d have to consume to get a given amount of solids.
I don’t know of any liquid concentrate with a concentration of more than 40x (which might also be denoted as 40:1). Obviously as more and more of the water is removed from fresh aloe vera gel, there comes a point where what’s left no longer behaves as a liquid. The aloe vera used in capsules and tablets has had so much water removed that only solids remain, giving rise to aloe vera powder. The exact method used to achieve this might vary and other things might be separately removed too – anthraquinones, insoluble fibre, pieces of rind – but the gist is that water has been removed from aloe vera gel, leaving only solids behind.
Most aloe capsules and tablets contain aloe vera with concentration 100x or 200x, which is more commonly denoted as 100:1 and 200:1 respectively. For the mathematical reasons alluded to at the start, they are occasionally also marked as 99:1 or 199:1. Normally, aloe powders derived from macerated whole leaves which are filtered to remove anthraquinones are sold as 100:1 concentration powders. This is because whole aloe leaves contain approximately 1% aloe vera solids to 99% water. This means there is less water to remove in order to leave only solids behind (and conversely, less water would need to be added to reconstitute the powder back into single strength aloe vera juice). Aloe vera powders derived from inner gel are normally sold as 200:1 concentration powders. This is because inner gel contains approximately 0.5% aloe vera solids, as discussed above, meaning more water is available for removal. Although these 100:1 and 200:1 conventions are widely accepted in the aloe vera industry, it should be noted that there are no official legal controls over their use.
While macerated whole leaves contain a higher percentage of aloe solids than inner gel, most of the polysaccharides, including acemannan, are found in the inner gel. It is for this reason that Tiny Pioneer aloe vera products use powders obtained from inner gel and our independent third party laboratory tests confirm that our products retain excellent levels of acemannan.
This seems like a suitable place to end part one. Please join me in part two where we will finally get to the maths and compare some different aloe vera capsules to see whether they are good value for money!
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