Grandma's medicines grow on trees
Nadine Wilson-Harris, Staff Reporter
For years, grandmothers had to fight to prove the efficacy of herbs and medicinal plants for a wide range of illnesses; but these plants have since become the main ingredients in a variety of herbal teas now on supermarket shelves across the island.
"Jamaicans traditionally have used herbs for hundreds of years, but it has been done very informally. In the country, you would pick it from your yard or the area around your yard. It was never cultivated as a crop for sale other than a few items such as ginger, for example, which used to be a very big crop in Jamaica and people consumed it as a hot beverage or a cold beverage," explained chief executive officer of Jamaican Teas Limited, John Mahfood.
Noting the demand for some of these herbs over the years, Mahfood's company decided to make them more accessible to those whose busy schedule would not allow them to go to the country and reap these plants. Currently, his company depends on farmers to bring the plants to them to be processed and packaged for consumption.
"Over the years, we have been able to source most of the things that we need locally. What we haven't been able to get enough of is the cerasee, which is very popular for Jamaicans living overseas, and recently, there has been a growing interest in soursop leaves and we have started looking at it, but we haven't yet got enough supply," he said.
Today, the company produces more than 40 types of teas under it's Tetley and Caribbean Dreams brand. Ingredients used for these teas include popular Jamaican herbs such as peppermint, lemon grass, noni, cinnamon, sorrel and chamomile.
But persons like Shirley Lindo prefers to get her herbs from the earth instead of from a tea bag. She has more than 15 different types of herbal plants growing on her five-acre farm in Bernard Lodge, St Catherine. These plants include guinea hen weed, neem, moringa, aloe vera, fever grass, noni, vervain, devil's horsewhip, barsley (basil), duppy gun (Jamaican ginseng) and medina.
"I am not any type of herbalist, I just use what I have in my yard," she insisted. "I just use them for whatever people say they are good for," she said.
BENEFITS OF HERBS
Lindo swears by the benefits of the plants and on a daily basis has a steady stream of visitors coming to her farm to ask what she can suggest for their medical conditions.
"When you look at chikungunya, right now, that is ravishing the country, the people of Jamaica are surviving because they are using their traditional methods," said Lindo.
She lamented the fact that for years, a lot of these plants were discredited by medical practitioners who suggested that their patients use traditional medication to treat their medical conditions instead.
According to Lindo, herbal products are only now claiming the spotlight because of the wealth they create for manufacturers.
"We have so discredited ourselves that we have driven our own herbal culture into disrepute underground," she said.
"If it don't come on plane or come on ship, it's foolishness. Everybody jumping around on it now and you know what they are going to do, they are going to sideline the little people who had kept it going for all these years, and they are going to now use it as a moneymaking thing, and if we do not put the Jamaican stamp on it again, again we are going to lose it," she said.
Fortunately, most of the boxes of herbal teas that were observed on supermarket shelves in the Corporate Area, recently, were branded 'Jamaican'. Several of them were also produced by companies Jamaicans have come to recognise over the years like Grace, Tetley, Benjamin and Lasco.
There have also been a noticeable increase in the space for herbal teas at health-food stores and supermarkets over the years, as the demand for herbs such as moringa, guinea hen weed, ginger and peppermint grows.
Scientist Dr Henry Lowe, who has launched his Eden Gardens nutraceutical brand of teas and supplements, also agrees that the demand for herbs is increasing locally.
His company, Bio-Tech R&D Institute Limited, manufactures bissy, guinea hen weed, cerasee, soursop and ginger herbal teas. Approximately 90 per cent of the teas the company manufactures is exported.
"We buy these from the farmers and then they have to be processed to make sure that they are clean, and then they would have to undergo standardisation and after that, they have to be processed in a number of ways and manufactured," he said.
Mahfood has stayed away from calling his brand of teas nutraceuticals, although people often purchase them for their medicinal and nutritional benefits.
"An issue is that when you export to the United States, you have to be very, very careful about the claims that you make in terms of what these products can do," he said.
"While we in the Caribbean over many years might know that ginger is good for upset stomach, or bissy might be good for something else, there has been no scientific data that has been presented to show those things.
"So when we sell our herbal teas, we have to basically sell it on the personal preference in terms of the taste and in terms of people's knowledge of what they are good for, based on their background and knowledge. But we cannot make any health claims," he said.
Jamaican Teas Limited has distributors in several Caribbean islands, the US and Canada, and Mahfood said the demand for different types of teas is growing. His company also packages teas for seven other producers.
"There is a growing interest in soursop leaves as the cure for cancer. We have not started that because we do not have enough locally," he said.
He said his company recently launched moringa and hope to launch turmeric tea soon.
"There is a huge demand worldwide for ginger, for lemon grass, for most of the items we use," he said.
Jamaicans have often com-plained about the high cost of local foods when compared to those imported. However, it was noted that while the herbal teas in local supermarkets were being sold for between $112 and $350, herbal teas made by Lipton in the US and those from China were being sold for more than $300.
Lindo asserted that there is a need to copyright Jamaican herbal products as more and more countries are starting to sell products under the Jamaican brand. She points to the Jamaican castor oil as one example.
"I have been in the business of castor oil for 13 years and now I am selling my castor oil abroad and I have to be proving that my castor oil is genuine. You know why? Because the Indians extract castor oil with a chemical, add a colouring to it and sell it as Jamaican black castor oil. The amount of Jamaican black castor oil that is sold on the market doesn't come from Jamaica, no way," she insisted.
She also believes Jamaicans should be encouraged to cultivate more herbal plants to replace those being reaped in huge amount to meet the demand of manufacturers who use them in large quantity.
"The soursop trees are now being cut up and ground up, because soursop is a cure for cancer. Where are the industries that are going to secure these things? Where is the continuity?" she asked.
"The herbal culture can benefit the nation, not just the rich and powerful. You can have people living the herbal life and then you have herbal tourism," said Lindo.