Many products such as essential oils, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics contain or are based on extracts from plants. Plant material for medicinal and cosmetic products can come from horticulture or wild harvesting. According to work by the Erasmus+ project Good Herbs about 90% of species are harvested from wild flora and only 10% are cultivated commercially. There are also indications that the markets for natural and organic cosmetics in Europe are developing fast, increasing the demand for plants used for cosmetic purposes. The need for plant materials used for cosmetic and medicinal purposes, combined with the need to protect plant biodiversity, create an opportunity for farmers and foresters to diversify their production and improve their income.
There is an expanding interest worldwide in medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs) due to their use as raw materials in the production of medicinal and cosmetic products. Furthermore, consumers are becoming more health-conscious paying attention to sustainably produced natural ingredients of known origin. This, in turn, has driven a rising demand for plant-based extracts from pharmaceutical, food & beverage, cosmetic and agrochemical industries. (EIP – AGRI Focus Group, 2019). To respond to this trend, producers tend to replace chemical ingredients with natural ingredients:
- This switch provides more evidence of the growing use of plant extracts across different health indications, including in segments such as sports nutrition, where plant proteins have been replacing animal proteins. Increasing demand from vegetarian and vegans in Europe, as well as across wider segments of the population have been driving this trend.
- Cosmetics manufacturers include natural certifications to attest the naturalness of their products (ProFound, 2019).
The European Union is the largest importer of crude medicinal plants in the world with imports estimated at around 100,00 tonnes, valued in excess of 250 million dollars. This is nearly double the quantity imported into the USA. Germany is the most important EU importer with 38% of the European market. France is the second largest importer with 17% and Italy the third with 9% of total imports. These three contries are also the three leading hebal medicine manufacturers in EU. Nevertheless, Europe is not just an importer; it also produces a substantial volume of such products. France and Spain are by far the most important producers of medicinal plants, followed by Germany and Austria.
In the early 2000s, the most important medicinal plants sold in Europe were (in descending order of importance): Gingko; Valerian; Horse Chestnut; Saw Palmetto; Bitter Orange Extract; Garlic; Hawthorn; Gingseng; Psyllium; Echinacea; etc…
It is from Italy that much of the European herbal tradition has evolved and many Italian universities in places like Padua, Bologna and Florence were involved in research into herbal drugs during the Renaissance and it is still a world leader in phytomedical research and development.
Concerning cultivated MAPs in Italy, which comprise more than 100 species, the relationship between cultivated varieties and their wild relatives can, however, differ considerably. In the case of Bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia), for example, which occupies nearly half of the national surface cultivated with MAPs (3 000 ha), these are traditional varieties or landraces selected long times ago in the Region of Calabria which dominates about 95% of the world’s production of this fruit. In the case of Menta of Piedmont (Mentha piperita ssp. officinalis), the second important cultivated MAP in Italy, exclusively one hybrid is cultivated, M. viridis x M. spicata, which can only be reproduced vegetatively and is not found in the wild. With regard to the two species which are maybe the most characteristic of the Mediterranean flora, origanum (Origanum vulgare ssp. hirtum) and myrtle (Myrtus communis), commercialization is largely based on plants collected from spontaneous, wild stands (Food and Agricolture Organization, 2008). However, the most popular medicinal plants in Italy are Chamomile, Sage, Hyssop, Fennel and Gentian.
- Chamomile: Two different plant species with similar effects are known as chamomile: German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile). Both contain similar ingredients, including sesquiterpenes (e.g., bisabolol, farnesene), sesquiterpenelactones (e.g., chamazulene, matricin), flavonoids (e.g., apigenin, luteolin), and volatile oils. Chamomile is used orally as a sedative and for gastrointestinal conditions; it is used topically for wound healing. Both herbal and homeopathic preparations have been used to treat mastitis and cracked, bleeding nipples. Chamomile is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) for use in food by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a spice, seasoning, or flavoring agent (1).
- Sage: Genus Salvia, commonly known as sage, is the largest genus in the Lamiaceae family. It comprises many species traditionally used as brain-enhancing tonics. In vitro and animal studies have confirmed that several Salvia species contain a large array of active compounds that may enhance cognitive activity (including memory, attention and learning) and protect against neurodegenerative disease (4).
- Hyssop: Hyssop is an herb prepared from the aerial parts of the plant Hyssopus officinalis, which is a member of the mint family indigenous to Southern Europe and the Middle East. Hyssop has been used in folk medicine for centuries for stimulation of the circulation and for treatment of a variety of conditions including upper respiratory illness, asthma, cough, sore throat, intestinal infections, gastrointestinal upset, gall bladder disease, poor appetite, urinary tract infections and dysmenorrhea (3).
- Fennel: Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) seeds contain the volatile oil composed largely of anethole, which is a phytoestrogen, as well as fenchone, estragole, 1,8-cineole (eucalyptol), and other constituents (2). Fennel is attributed digestive and expectorant properties. More precisely, these actions are attributable to the oil extracted from the ripe fruits of the plant and its seeds. In fact, both the oil and fennel seeds are capable of promoting intestinal motility and, in high doses, also exert an antispastic action on the digestive tract. For this reason, the use of fennel has been officially approved for the treatment of dyspeptic disorders.
- Gentiana: Gentiana, a cosmopolitan and important genus of the Gentianaceae family, comprises 400 species distributed among the world. Based on the studies of Iranian traditional medicine texts, there are some promising bioactivities for this genus that is unknown in modern medicine and some of them are still the basis of new remedies. In traditional medicine texts, Gentiana’s different exclusive forms of preparations are effective for treatment of some disorders such as menstrual over-bleeding, conjunctivitis, vitiligo, animals venom poisoning, injuries, infected wounds, pain and swelling of liver, spleen, stomach and sprains of muscles. There are some activities that are the same in traditional and modern medicine such as anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective and diuretic effects. Phytochemical investigations on the title genus have led to characterization many secondary metabolites. Secoiridoidal and iridoid glycosides such as gentiopicroside, xanthones, monoterpene alkaloid; polyphenol and flavones are the constituents that have been shown the pharmacological activities in different gentian species (5).
Although the status of herbal medicine in Italy operates under certain regulatory uncertainties, there are a number of important local companies operating in this field such as Aboca, Ulrich, Minardi, Carlo Sessa, and Dr Taffi as well as well known foreign companies such as Arkopharma, Salus Haus and Solgar Vitamins. Italy also has a strong extraction industry, dominated by Indena, based in Milan, which is the world’s leading herb extractor producing a wide range of basic extracts as well as specialist herbal medicines. There are an estimated 4,250 herbalist shops (erboristeria) in Italy. This is a distribution channel unique to this country. While these outlets are not pharmacies and are hence not allowed to sell prescription drugs, they are staffed by trained herbalists and sell a wide range of non-prescription OTC products and herbal remedies. Such erboristeria also formulate teas, infusions and tinctures specifically for their clients using crude plant drugs (Commonweatlh Secretariat, 2001).
Plant-derived extracts formed the basis of traditional medicine systems in nearly all cultures. Europe has a long tradition in wild-collection of plant resources and cultivation of medicinal and aromatic plants. Ensuring a secure and sustainable supply of plant raw materials is extremely important for both end-use industries and consumers.
- Drugs and Lactation Database (LactMed) [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Library of Medicine (US); 2006–. Chamomile. 2019 Jul 20. PMID: 30000867.
- Drugs and Lactation Database (LactMed) [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Library of Medicine (US); 2006–. Fennel. 2020 Nov 16. PMID: 30000852.
- LiverTox: Clinical and Research Information on Drug-Induced Liver Injury [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; 2012–. Hyssop. 2018 Mar 30. PMID: 31643710.
- Lopresti AL. Salvia (Sage): A Review of its Potential Cognitive-Enhancing and Protective Effects. Drugs R D. 2017 Mar;17(1):53-64. doi: 10.1007/s40268-016-0157-5. PMID: 27888449; PMCID: PMC5318325.
- Mirzaee F, Hosseini A, Jouybari HB, Davoodi A, Azadbakht M. Medicinal, biological and phytochemical properties of Gentiana species. J Tradit Complement Med. 2017 Jan 28;7(4):400-408. doi: 10.1016/j.jtcme.2016.12.013. PMID: 29034186; PMCID: PMC5634738.