What are different methods for extracting botanical compounds from herbs?

Chris Kilham
Alternative & Complementary Medicine
There are numerous botanical extraction methods available. Many herbs require unique extraction methods because of the complexity of the key components. I'm going to focus on three of the most common -- steam distillation, alcohol extraction, and supercritical extraction. During steam distillation, the plant material is permeated with steam. As the plant tissues break down, the essential oils, key compounds, and water vapor are released, then collected and cooled. The volatile essential oil condenses and separates, and the key hydrophilic components can be easily isolated.

Alcohol extraction is slightly more complex, but still one of the most frequently used methods for extracting botanical compounds. The plant constituents are fully dissolved, then purified through a distillation process. An alcohol is then applied to extract the key components from the other alcohol-insoluble plant constituents. A secondary distillation process removes the alcohol, leaving only the pure, concentrated key components.

Finally, supercritical extraction, which has become increasingly popular, uses carbon dioxide (CO2) under extremely high pressure to isolate key components. The process involves low temperatures, ensuring the ingredients are not affected by high heat that could alter or weaken the beneficial compounds. Once the extraction is completed, the carbon dioxide is re-released into the atmosphere.

Each of these methods can be utilized to create pure, concentrated extracts, and when these extracts are combined, they can yield a high potency dietary supplement with a broad range of activity.

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