HRB 635b Field Trip/ Industry Intensive

HRB 635b is a field trip offered by Maryland University of Integrative Health (MUIH) for students in the Product Design tract of the Masters of Therapeutic Herbalism program.  For one week the students travel to Asheville, North Carolina, located in the Appalachian Mountains in the western part of the state.  The students have the opportunity to visit various players in the herbal industry, getting behind the scenes tours and hands-on experience.  The week is designed in a way that students get to see all aspects of the industry: growing the crops, natural product development, herbal schools, scientific research, conservation efforts, etc.

The purpose of this artifact (and all artifacts on this blog) is to illustrate to the MUIH faculty that I successfully accomplished the objectives of the course.  The trip is jam packed with tours, both eye opening and life changing, this may well read like a travel brochure or advertisement for these companies, rather than an educational artifact.  I could not even scratch the surface on the work these companies are doing so i encourage interested parties to check out the company pages.  Also, feel free to contact me with any questions.

The trip that I participated in was September 5- 10, 2017.  The learning objectives for this course were for the student to:

  • Have developed awareness of diverse business models employed by herbalists in the herbal products industry.
  • Have an introductory knowledge of the major components of an herbal products company including but not limited to cultivation, harvesting, processing, formulation, quality control, research and business (marketing, sales, and financial considerations)
  • Have gained an appreciation for the range of sizes/scales of successful herbal products businesses
  • Have gained a foundational knowledge of the principles of and ethical considerations surrounding sustainable sourcing (cultivated vs wildcrafted, etc.) of medicinal plants for commercial use
  • Have developed an awareness of the importance of preserving natural plant communities and the pros and cons of sustainable wild harvest of medicinal plants
  • Have continued to improve their plant identification skills, building on instruction from previous coursework.

In order to achieve these objectives, we visited local businesses and schools, participated in class lectures at the house where we all stayed, did research and homework assignments, and spent some time hiking and wildcrafting.  Like many businesses, no cameras were allowed in most operational areas.  I have included the photos that I was allowed to take.


Blue Ridge Food Ventures – This facility is a large warehouse, composed of multiple kitchens, that are used to manufacture food, beverages, and natural products.  We were able to tour the facility and see how other small businesses owners rented  certified kitchen spaces in order to meet Good Manufacturing Processes and regulatory requirements of their industry.  This was particularly helpful for those of us that were struggling with the logistics of maintaining a legally complaint business.  The photos below were taken inside the front of the facility and showcase some of the products that are manufactured within the building.



Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine Director (founder), CoryPine Shane allowed us entry into his school.

We all took seats in his classroom as he shared his story.  He held nothing back, telling us both the good and the bad that he experienced while building a career in a tough path.  He offered wisdom and insight, answered questions, and let us all take a sneak peak into his apothecary, where Pine Herbals are crafted.  Not only did I leave with a better understanding of the business side of the industry, but I purchased a pretty awesome bottle of Betony tincture, as well.



Gaia Herbs

Gaia Herbs is spoken, almost in reverence, by many in the herbal industry.  All I knew of the company was that they produced high quality herbal supplements – and that I liked their tea.  Given the sheet scope and size of their operation, there was a lot to see and discuss.


We started our tour in the chemistry labs where we got to see millions of dollars in cutting edge equipment at work.  No photos are allowed within the labs so you are stuck with this one of me in the lobby prior to entry.  We learned about the extensive testing that Gaia conducts and got to ask questions of the Quality Assurance team at work.  Our discussions of solvents, extraction methods, aseptic lab techniques, etc was easily an hour or two of our day.  I have never been in such a nice, well equipped lab, so it was a bit mind blowing to think that it was a lab for a company in the herbal industry.  This is when I first started to understand why herbalists root for Gaia.

Next we toured the production facilities.  Since our phones were outside in the lobby, I did not get to take extension notes.  We had a very good discussion of the various methods for creating herbal extractions.  Gaia uses a percolation and their testing has show it to be more effective than other means of extraction.  We got to see the machinery involved and ask questions before we proceeded to the area where the supplements were encapsulated.

Unlike many other herbal supplement suppliers, Gaia encapsulates liquid extracts.  We got to watch capsules being filled, sealed, inspected, and boxed for delivery over to the packaging warehouse were they are put into Gaia’s patented plant-based bottles.

We spent the rest of our morning touring the farms (they have virtual tours on their website).  I got to ask questions about the planting and cultivation techniques, how the crops are treated and harvested, proper climate, etc. It was informative and made me feel as if this is something I could do myself (on a far smaller scale).  Additionally, we learned about Gaia’s

And now, for the photos.  Imagine standing in field of echinacea and passionflower, surrounded by Gingko and Hawthorn trees, breathing in clean mountain air, with the aroma of relaxing herbs on the breeze. That is what a trip to Gaia is like.

Side note: One of the things we learned from Dr. McCoy was that passionflower (the more pink flower in the slideshow) is one of the only herbs found to have been nearly uniformly used by Native American tribes.


As a final, unexpected treat, Gaia treated us to lunch in their dining facility.   The food was amazing and fresh but it was the sit down experience that was so memorable.  we sat down to outdoor dining with views overlooking the grounds. Truly stunning imagery. We all thought the trip couldn’t possibly get any better and then Ric Scalzo, Founder and  CEO of Gaia Herbs, pulled up a chair and ate with us.  He generously let us ask him questions related to operations, starting a business, building relationships with suppliers around the world, and so much more.  I cannot imagine any other reality where I would have the opportunity to ask a successful CEO to share all his secrets for building a business.



Herbal Ingenuity  Located in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Herbal Ingenuity is a raw material supplier that takes raw botanical ingredients, directly from suppliers, and cleans, cuts, and treats the materials for the end customer.  We were able to watch the quality assurance process as workers sifted through the materials, see the machines used for cutting, and ask questions of the staff throughout our time there.

North Carolina Arboretum & Germplasm Repository  This part of the trip was the most surprising.  When we were initially told we were visiting an arboretum, I was naturally quite happy.  What herbalist doesn’t love arboretums?  I was entirely unfamiliar with the Germplasm Repository and its unique, important work. Brace yourself, I’m going to gush – and try to respect the confidential nature of some of the work.

Straight from their site, “The North Carolina Arboretum Germplasm Repository (TNCAGR) leads a multifaceted effort to conserve, study and utilize native plants and plant organisms (endophytes).”  None of the students were prepared for what we were about to see.

First, we got to meet Dr. Joe-Ann McCoy, the Director of the Germplasm Repository. I took four pages of notes while she spoke. I finally switched to voice clips while she discussed the plight of the Ginseng crop.  She generously explained her work in creating voucher specimens, collecting and conserving seeds, encouraging the development of seed banks, researching, grant proposal writing, and conducting research and testing on endophytes – the organisms that live inside of plants.  I took an entire page of notes on this alone and am absolutely captivated by topic.  By this point in our trip I was already asking Dr. McCoy if took interns.

We got to look around the lab (slideshow below), see the equipment, and gain a greater appreciation for the scientific work being conducted.

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The final part of our time with Dr. McCoy was seeing some of the plants being propagated and a lesson in ethnobotany.  She was working with local tribes to propagate plants that had significant traditional and medicinal value to the tribes.  Through the trust she had built with them, she had been allowed into a world few were part of.  She had developed relationships with numerous native tribes, and was working hard to help them all develop their own voucher specimen collections and herbariums.  This unexpected session of the trip was the most inspirational part of the entire trip.




North Carolina State University Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center

I took very few notes on this part of the trip because we were hands on with the plants and exploring gardens and woods.  We started this visit with a trip to North Carolina State University’s Mountain Horticulture Crops Research and Extension Center.  We saw the offices where the staff worked and learned about the Alternative Crops and Organics Program, much of which is dedicated to medicinals.  From there we hopped in some trucks and went off to see some of the crops.

The Asian herb garden was fascinating to see.  We learned about the current issues in the industry with contaminated Indian and Chinese herbs. The soil in China is full of heavy metals and fecal matter has been found on many plants in India. For this reason many companies are turning to the United States to supply traditional Asian plants. The very unique ecology of western North Carolina is very similar to Asia so the plants can grow successfully without losing the medicinal benefits.


The second half of this trip introduced us to forest farming.  We saw some very special and endangered medicinal plants growing in the woods and learned about the ethnobotanical connections between these plants and the local communities.  We discussed sustainable harvesting practices, over-harvesting, and ethical issues. Below are some photos of Black Cohosh, Ginseng, Bloodroot, and Goldenseal. Additionally, we learned about the Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer Coalition.

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Final lesson:

We ended our trip with a lesson from our instructor on sustainable wildcrafting and botanical identification.  We visited a state park where we were able to hike and discuss the plants that we encountered.

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Essential oils in my food???

Essential Oils

There are essential oils in my food? Wait, what?  Why?

Well, I’m glad you asked. Let me explain the two different ways that eos are used in food.

  1. Food Preservation

Essential oils can serve a very vital purpose and prevent the growth of certain food-borne bacteria, such as L. monocytogenes (this is just one example).  L monocytogenes causes the illness, listeria, which leads to many deaths every year.  Pregnant women are often advised to avoid processed deli meats and other foods that are higher risk for listeria. Studies have shown promising evidence of some essential oils being useful at inhibiting the monotyogenes growth, even at low dilutions.

Other studies (below) have demonstrated the ability of cinnamon bark essential oil to damage the cellular structure of Staphylococcus aureus, amongst other bacteria. Because of its extreme antimicrobial acitivity, it is a useful food additive, as well as  preservative.

If you are interested in natural ways to preserve your food then take a look at these two links below.  I looked for scientific sources that carefully evaluate data, so potential bias is minimized.

Essential Oils in Food Preservation

Essential oils may provide good source of food preservation

2. Flavoring

Most of us are probably not looking for ways to preserve our food but that doesn’t mean that we can’t still use essential oils in our food and beverages.  *This is NOT the same thing as internal ingestion, which is a super hot button in the aromatherapy community.  That pertains to ingesting essential oils in water, gel capsules, or directly dropping them onto the tongue.  Essential oil dispersed in food will act very differently in your body and is less likely to cause irritation.*  We are talking about using essential oils that are recognized by the FDA to be safe in appropriate dilutions and are labeled as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe).  Fun fact: this has been going on forever.  The food industry uses tons of essential oils in foods and drinks, often being directly responsible for their characteristic taste.

Fun fact: Juniper berries are responsible for gin’s characteristic taste!  


If you are the adventurous type and what to try some essential oils in your cooking, here are some tips below.  At some point I plan to do a post on making extracts, such as vanilla.

But first, Safety.  Repeat after me: OIL DOES NOT DISSOLVE IN WATER. Again. OIL DOES NOT DISSOLVE IN WATER.  You cannot put a few drops of essential oil in a glass of water and drink it safely. Oil does not dissolve in water, it isn’t water soluble. It will adhere directly to the lining of your throat as soon as it comes in contact. Anyone that tells you otherwise is not a trained aromatherapist. Or scientist.  It is indisputable chemistry.

Make sure your oils are very high quality.  No one wants to go eating a bunch of toxic diethyl phthalate used as a cheap filler or solvent in their essential oils.  See my blog on finding quality essential oils.

Start with one drop. They are very potent.  You can always add more, but you can’t undo a burning mouth or throat as easily. 

Add the oils near the end of the cooking as heat will damage them and potentially change their chemical properties.

Start simple. A couple of suggestions:

  • A drop of lemon in your cream cheese, icing, or pankcake batter is delicious.
  • Try a drop of cinnamon or nutmeg in your coffee or fall desserts.
  • How about peppermint in your homemade mint ice cream?

I’m sure there are plenty of recipes on Pinterest that you can try.  Keep in mind this is becoming a trend, so it may appear to be a new thing but it isn’t.  Like I mentioned above, this has been done in the food industry for ages.  If you are interested in giving it a shot, let me know how it works out.  And share some recipes!   

*Département De Biologie, Faculté Des Sciences, Université Abdelmalek Essaâdi, Tétouan, Morocco. “Functional and Ultrastructural Changes in Pseudomonas Aeruginosa and Staphylococcus Aureus Cells Induced by Cinnamomum Verum Essential Oil.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Oct. 2010. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.



Hola! To conclude our posts on aromatherapy and how smells work, I am going to break down pheromones for you. Hold tight, it might get a bit science-y.  Feel free to leave questions or comments at the end.

Last time, we briefly mentioned pheromones.  Here’s a refresher:

    In humans, our olfactory systems are rather elementary compared to other animals but it is still important for gathering information.  Odors and pheromones are translated into those electrical signals, conveying messages to the brain that elicit some type of response.  Odors are detected in the nose in the nasal olfactory epithelium (OE).  

    Animals detect pheromones via the VNO, the vomeronasal organ.  Some scientists believe that the VNO is an inactive organ in humans and that humans simply do not communicate via chemosignals.   Others know that scientific evidence proves this very concept.  Numerous tests have shown that when exposed to the smell of mens’ sweat, women’s physiological responses demonstrated statistically significant changes, classifying the sweat, or components of it, as pheromones.


So, what are pheromones?

Pheromones, like other hormones, are at the core, single compounds or small sets of chemicals secreted by animals.  Pheromones are set apart from other hormones in that once secreted, they act outside the body to affect the behavior of other animals, rather than just the animal secreting the pheromone.

There are several types of pheromones and each is secreted to trigger different types of behavior.  Pheromones are often misunderstood and considered to be related only to sex.  They are secreted for various other reasons:  alarm, bonding, food, marking territory, communicating that another animal should back off, etc.

Pheromones are detected by animals through an organ in the nose named the VNO (Vomeronasal Organ).  The VNO is connected to the brain via the hypothalamus.  This is how animals “receive” the communication.  Humans have the same 4 types of pheromones as other animals: releasers, primers, signalers, and modulators.  

  • Releaser pheromones are the ones most commonly thought to communicate sexual desire to another human, however there isn’t a lot of current evidence on the reliance of these pheromones in sexual attraction.  There is some evidence showing the involvement of releaser pheromones in guiding an infant to a lactating mother.
  • Primer pheromones are linked to the reproductive system.  They can impact puberty, menstruation, and pregnancy. This would include the lengthening, shortening, or synchronization of menstrual cycles based on who the menstruating woman was around, male or female, and how often.
  • Signaler pheromones are informative and communicate a certain type of information between humans. The most commonly cited example is the one of a mother being able to identify her newborn by scent alone.  Ovulating women may also signal when they are fertile.
  • Modulator pheromones communicate that a bodily function of another human needs to be altered in some way.  This can be anything from mood to sexual desire.

If you made it this far, thanks for hanging in there! You are now equipped with a whole lot of nerdy knowledge about smells work and why they matter.  Feel free to leave your comments below.


How does the sense of smell work?


Today we are going to learn how the sense of smell works.  If you are wondering why an aromatherapist would care, head over to my previous post for a quick primer. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Now, let’s get into some granularity and talk about how the sense of smell works.  This is one of those topics that really sets professionals apart and illustrates their training.

So how does the sense of smell work?

 In the interest of time I will simplify this quite a bit.  Molecules are inhaled through the nose (essential oils, perfumes, nasty odors, they are all molecules of something).  The information is carried via an odor molecule which is turned into an electrical signal in the sensory neurons.    Olfaction, the ability to smell, and translate odors to electrical signals, is pivotal to the animals’ ability to find food and locate mates.  

In humans, our olfactory systems are rather elementary compared to other animals but it is still important for gathering information.  Odors and pheromones are translated into those electrical signals, conveying messages to the brain that elicit some type of response.  Odors are detected in the nose in the nasal olfactory epithelium (OE).

Animals detect pheromones via the VNO, the vomeronasal organ.  Some scientists believe that the VNO is an inactive organ in humans and that humans simply do not communicate via chemosignals.   Others know that scientific evidence proves this very concept.  Numerous tests have shown that when exposed to the smell of mens’ sweat, women’s physiological responses demonstrated statistically significant changes, classifying the sweat, or components of it, as pheromones.

Okay so we smelled something, the molecule was absorbed by the mucous membranes in our noses and were translated into electrical signals that are sent to the brain.  Then what? The olfactory passageways sent information to the olfactory cortex, located at the base of the frontal lobe of the brain.  Yep, what you smell is translated into a signal that is sent right to your brain.  From there it can be routed all over your brain, into various areas with various functions. The key to remember is that the brain controls things such as emotions, pain, memories, and a lot of other things. This is why aromatherapy can have both physical and psychological impacts.  If you are really fascinated by the science, there are plenty of courses online.  For our purposes, you get the picture.

Given that an essential oil has the power to communicate messages to the brain and those messages may cause a physical, mental, or emotional response, can you see why it is so important for an aromatherapist to understand olfaction?

Interested in learning more? My next post will be all about pheromones.



Sense of Smell Institute. (2009). Human Pheromones: What’s Purported, What’s Supported. [White paper].Retrieved from


Chemical-free products

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Let’s talk about chemical-free products.  Type “chemical-free” into Google. Go ahead.

All kinds of companies and products will pop up, touting the “chemical-free” wares that they are pedaling. They will sell you on the perils of applying chemicals to your skin.  Go throw away ALL of your products immediately because they contain chemicals!

Or don’t.

Take a deep breath and let’s think about this logically, scientifically.  What is a chemical?

If you do your own search you may see references to chemical weapons, chemical reactions, and so on.   If you want to head over to  you can see how they define a chemical. A chemical, simply put, is anything made from matter.  See more here.  If a chemical is anything made from matter, then water is a chemical.  So is oxygen. So are humans.  We are like big walking bags of chemicals.  EVERYTHING is a chemical.  Wait, what?

If chemicals aren’t necessarily evil, and are completely unavoidable, then why do so many companies market chemical-free products?

Simple.  It works.  The natural/organic skincare market is booming.  The “chemical-free” trend obviously extends far beyond skincare but that’s what we are really concerned about here.  Some estimate that the natural skincare market will command $13.2 billion by 2018.  Think about the other applications: food, cleaning products, etc, and it’s clear that this marketing trend is a smashing success.

These companies know they are not selling chemical-free products.  After all, cosmetic companies hire chemists to do their formulating.  What they are marketing are products free of synthetic chemicals (and that’s sometimes true).  Since synthetic chemicals have been demonized in the media, these companies are capitalizing on our collective fear and ignorance of ridiculously long scientific names on labels.  It isn’t just big, nameless companies.  It is well-meaning, and not-so-well-meaning, bloggers, moms, entrepreneurs, and wannabe scientists propagating this misplaced fear of scientific nomenclature.  Some believe that their intent is good and that we are too literal if we make a fuss.   I believe that a product manufacturer should a) understand the chemistry of their products and b) have some integrity.  As professionals, we want consumers to be informed so that they can make the decisions that are best for their needs.

It’s difficult to know which chemicals are safe and which aren’t given the opposing views and often contradictory claims of organizations such as the U.S. FDA and EPA.  First, apply some critical thinking.  Do you believe that there is conclusive scientific evidence (such as peer-reviewed double-blind studies) on every chemical? Who funds safety studies?  Is there bias that render the findings untrustworthy (we could talk about this all day long)?  There is not sufficient scientific evidence to conclusively prove or disprove both the short and long-term safety of every chemical that could possibly be included in your products.  There is even less chance of this if it is a natural substance since companies just don’t make as much money off Mother Nature as they do things concocted in a lab.  So what can be done?

Ultimately, we must educate ourselves.  We must use critical thinking and extend our knowledge beyond the label in front of us or the claims being made.  Instead of mindlessly handing over your hard-earned dollars, think about what your money is supporting.  Are you purchasing a product made by a reputable company?  Are they known for quality products?  Are their business practices in line with what they claim to care about?

As far as the labels go, start reading them.  In the U.S., Canada, and Europe, cosmetic companies are required to list ingredients using the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI).  Some folks claim that if you can’t pronounce it, it must be avoided at all costs.  INCI standards require that ingredients be listed by their scientific name.  That isn’t to confuse the costumer, it’s actually for their safety.  Scientific names such as tocopherol and butyrospermum parkii sound pretty intimidating so it’s easy to be scared off.  Don’t be intimidated.  It’s just Vitamin E and shea butter – which we love.  Other things, such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) are associated with some awful side effects.  Maybe you want to avoid those.  Maybe you don’t.  Read scientific literature and decide if the evidence is convincing enough for you.

There are some pretty scary and frankly, unnecessary, chemicals out there that should be avoided.  We each owe it to ourselves to decide what we will tolerate and support with our money.  We should treat ourselves well. Here is a great article debunking the whole “chemical-free” thing.

You can peruse the links provided in this blog for more information or, if you are serious about learning a bit of science, head on over to here for an Intro to Chemistry.

If you have no interest (or time) in doing research, you’re in luck.  It’s already been done for you!  There are databases that provide ingredient/product information.

First, visit the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database to get a full listing of ingredients, what they mean and how harmful they are.  They have a great app that you can download on your phone and have all the knowledge at your fingertips.  The database is offered by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a self-proclaimed nonprofit environmental advocacy group.  Since it is an environmental group, it should come as no surprise that not everyone agrees with their findings or that there isn’t always a substantial body of scientific evidence available.  You can read all about that here. serves a similar purpose and is run by the Personal Care Products Council, which is a trade association for the cosmetics and skincare industry.  The information on the site is extremely useful, thorough, and detailed.  It offers loads of information, to include citations for the information.

Those two databases will quite often contradict each other, so as always, read, synthesize, and form your own opinions.