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Dearth of science limits aloe's potential, expert says

By Hank Schultz , 28-Nov-2012
Last updated on 28-Nov-2012 at 18:25 GMT

Photo courtesy Improve USA
Photo courtesy Improve USA

Aloe vera is a popular botanical in beverages and functional foods, but a dearth of credible science keeps the ingredient from achieving superstar status, according to a consultant.

Chris Noonan has consulted with companies on a range of ingredients and most recently has been working with aloe.  Noonan, a principal in the firm Health Guidance US, was one of the presenters at the recent meeting of the International Aloe Science Council in Las Vegas.

“Someone needs to step up and own this market from an efficacy standpoint and make it really significant,” Noonan told FoodNavigator-USA.

Noonan has been working recently in South America, and said the ingredient is incredibly popular there.  Significant shelf space in stores is devoted to aloe beverages, and Noonan said he has even seen aloe beverages sold from carts in some of the most unlikeliest, remote locations he has visited in his travels.  Aloe’s slightly astringent taste seems to resonate with palates south of the border.

“Aloe is a great ingredient in that market.  It’s a great ingredient to work with in beverages and foods,” Noonan said. “It seems to have a real good acceptance across Central and South America.”

“The flavor systems that you can extend off of aloe are good for palates down there,” he said.

Despite the lack of human clinical trials, the market is still humming;  At the IASC meeting in mid November executive director Devon Powell estimated the global aloe market at $13 billion.

Long history of use

Aloe has a long history of use in the market, especially as a topical, Noonan said.  Consumers seem to associate the name with a general health benefit, without the manufacturer having to work too hard to demonstrate any specific health benefits. 

But the strong consumer uptake in some market seems to work against the ingredient’s integrity, Noonan said.  Science sessions at the IASC meeting focused on the widely varying quality of some aloe samples tested in labs.  Some samples appeared to have little or no aloe vera juice in them at all.

“You have some big brands shipped over from Taiwan and Korea and they have no standardization. There are creating a aloe beverage market,” Noonan said.  But it’s not a market based on accepted levels of quality.

The science behind aloe focuses on the polysaccharides in the plant, in particular acemannan, said to have immune system supporting properties.  The ingredient is also mentioned in connection with digestive system support. 

“With the acemannon, you have a range of interesting prebiotic effects, and you have the contribution to shortchain fatty acids,” Noonan said.

But Noonan said the data supporting these claims is weak, consisting mostly of in vitro and at best, animal studies.

“I kept looking for the research and I said, this can’t be it,” he said.

Confusion about forms

Aloe also has the drawback of potentially being somewhat toxic in its raw, unrefined form that contains digestive irritant compounds known as aloins.  The IASC  defines these raw form as “non-decolorized” aloe.  Accepted standards for aloe specify less than 10 ppm of aloin in an aloe ingredient meant for foods and beverages.

The confusion about these forms has led regulators in some countries, such as Mexico and Brazil, to ban the ingredient for use in foods.  Aloe recently briefly appeared on a negative list in Mexico, i.e. a list of ingredients that may not be used in foods.   Aloe has a big constituency in that country, as much of the supply is grown there, and after regulators received information about the different forms of the ingredient, it was removed from the list, according to IASC executive director Devon Powell.

And aloe is not approved for use in foods in Brazil, though in the past that has not stopped its sale in beverage cases in that country, Noonan said.  But there are signs that Brazil’s National Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA) may be starting to crack down on that regulation.  What’s required, Noonan said, is for a supplier or manufacturer to step forward to fund the work necessary to get this approval, similar to achieving GRAS status from FDA.

“Somebody has to go through the process to get that listed on that pretty extensive list,” Noonan said.

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