Creating Pukka herbs

Sebastian Pole, Co-founder Pukka Herbs; herbalist

Published in JHH15.2 – Healing Journeys

I came across the remarkable world of traditional herbal medicine in 1991 on meeting an Ayurvedic doctor (more officially, vaidya) in India.That insight into the world of Ayurvedic anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology and treatment opened my eyes to a whole new world. I soon connected with its potential to help transform human and environmental health and spent the next decade training in an eclectic mix of Ayurvedic, Chinese and western herbalism.After experiencing a few too many disappointing cups of herbal tea, being inspired to bring the best organic and pharma[1]copoeial herbs to as many people as possible and meeting Pukka’s co-founder Tim Westwell, Pukka Herbs started life in 2001 as a simple idea: connect people with the incredible wonders of herbs and do as much good as we possibly can.

This story is about the journey of creating Pukka Herbs – a quest to help bring healing herbs to the many – a vision of how business can regenerate people, plants and planet. It’s about how, from humble beginnings, we grew in 15 giant years to become the fastest growing organic herbal tea and supplement company in the world; an adventure that has been healing on many levels – ecologically, socially and personally.

With a degree in Hindi, followed by a decade of studying the traditional medicine systems of Ayurveda, Chinese and Western herbalism – as well as the organic farming experience I gained to fund my studies – my path ahead was clear: to do my best to promote the benefits of herbs and natural medicine. As well as practicing in clinic, I knew that one of the best ways to achieve this would be to set up a business that would champion herbal medicine and the healing power of plants.

I met Pukka’s other founder, Tim Westwell, through an advert he had placed in Bristol’s monthly Venue magazine. It was business-dating at its best. Tim, with a background in sales and marketing, had completely different skillsets from mine, but we shared a common thread of values and mutual trust.

We had never created a business before, but we knew we wanted Ayurveda and herbal health at its heart and for everyone who came into contact with it to profit: ecologically, socially and financially. We knew the idea had integrity, passion and essence. We just needed a name.

A name carries such importance! They are the words that symbolise who you are. After some hilarious non[1]starters (such as Holy Cow!) we came up with Pukka Herbs. We loved it on so many levels. In Hindi pukka means ‘real, authentic or genuine’. It also means more colloquially ‘ripe, juicy, tasty and delicious’. So Pukka symbolised all we stood for in life. Being pukka was our aspiration!

On 22 August 2001 we registered at Companies House, went to the cashpoint and withdrew the maximum our credit cards would allow…and set about creating our first range of three organic herbal teas.

As our teas and supplement ranges grew we began to articulate what is at the heart of Pukka and what has made our journey quite so healing.

The Pukka mission

Conservation through commerce

In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.

Baba Dioum, environmentalist

Realising that we could contribute to conservation through commerce was a lightbulb moment for us. And rather idealistically, from my kitchen in Bath and Tim’s ‘head office’ spare bedroom in Bristol, this is what we wanted to do with Pukka.

Through making organic Ayurvedic creations we could bring some value to threatened forests. By paying farmers and collectors above market prices for the herbs we use at Pukka we could help protect dwindling ecosystems. By making organic farming practices worth more than soil[1]destroying conventional methods we could incentivise conservation of the Earth. Commerce could lead to conservation.

In order to really drive conservation through business we joined the 1% For the Planet movement in 2015. This pioneering scheme commits business to donating 1% of sales turnover (not just profit) to environmental and social causes. Last year we gave £500,000 to worthy NGOs and charities.

Values at our heart

At Pukka our values are much more than good ideas that inspire us. They are ways of working that help us be pukka in everything we do. We apply values to our work at Pukka to create energy, inspiration, better results and satisfaction for ourselves and others.

We have identified these values as four ‘wisdom seeds’ drawn from ancient Asian systems of religion, philosophy and medicine that are still alive and flourishing today. In fact, these values are so important they are the foundation of the longest thriving social and medical institutions in the world; the Buddhist Sangha and Ayurvedic medicine.

Engaging with the wisdom seeds helps us keep Pukka’s culture connected with our origins as well as empower the present. They guide employment, meetings and behaviour to bring out the best in everyone’s potential.

Truth is the essence of who we are, the root from which we emanate; respect is how we relate to each other, the vine that weaves throughout everything; purity is about knowing the heart of the matter, it’s the flowering of our heart; and effort is the fruit that we reap from our inspiring and purposeful activities.

Connecting people and plants

Through the incredible power of herbs we will inspire people to lead a more conscious life. We will strive every day to protect people, plants and planet.

This simple statement is our daily mantra – and our mission. We want something as simple as a cup of herbal tea or supplement to be the catalyst that connects you with nature. And one vital ingredient for a more ‘connected’ life is ensuring that we look after the world around us – the hand that feeds us – so everything we make is certified organic. So much so that we even went to the edges of the textile industry to ensure that the string on our staple-free teabag is organic (shockingly, the cotton industry uses 10% of the volume of all pesticides used today – and in some developing countries it’s up to 50%). As a Bristol-based business (the city is home to the Soil Association) we were inspired to connect with their pioneering vision for a healthy planet.

The evidence for the many ecosystem-wide benefits of organic farming continues to grow.

Recent scientific reviews and meta-studies find that organic farms deliver more wildlife, healthier soils, climate mitigation, protection against flooding, clean water, lower pesticide use, lower antibiotic use, more jobs and better food security (Pole, 2018).

These advantages add up to large health benefits for individuals and society. Conversely, just as the true cost of the disruptive health impacts of our modern agricultural system becomes evident, we are piling more pressure on an already overburdened NHS. It is now well documented that, because of modern agriculture’s impact, as a society we are rapidly becoming both fatter and more malnourished, just as our blood pressures are rising and our cognition descending. These huge historical errors are costing us billions of pounds and lamentable suffering (see Fitzpatrick et al, 2017).

Inspired by the traditional wisdom of Ayurveda

Plants are the basis of all life, good health and prosperity.

David Crow, herbalist

In founding Pukka, along with agricultural integrity we also wanted medical integrity too. And where better to learn than from humanity’s longest practised medical system, Ayurveda? Ayurveda is India’s ancient system of health, and yet so much more. It’s a way to live and a way to understand and transform your life. It is often translated as ‘knowledge of life’ and encompasses the idea of how to live wisely. In particular it is the knowledge of how to live according to your unique and individual constitutional make-up that puts the choice of how you exist firmly in your court. A description given in the Charaka Samhita, an early Ayurvedic text, written about 100BCE, says:

It is called ayurveda because it tells us what foods, herbs and activities enhance the quality of life, and which ones don’t.’

We wanted to share the wisdom and empowering vision of health that springs from the fountain of Ayurveda. It is expressed as a way of life that flows with the changes of the seasons, weather, time and place. Like a true doctor it teaches dietary and behavioural adjustments that can be adopted as you mature from childhood through to adult[1]hood and into old age. It gives advice on how to prevent illness as one season becomes another, and specific recommendations on how to adjust your daily habits as well as detailed diagnostic and pathological interpretation. This way of wholesome living prescribes a routine for all the different climates and geographical regions of the world. At the root of Ayurveda is its focus on the unique[1]ness of each individual. As such it is a universal system applicable to every individual living in any part of the world – and we wanted to share its wisdom.

Pharmacopoeial-grade herbs

Another foundational principle was that the therapeutic quality of everything Pukka offered would meet the qualitative and quantitative parameters of the European as well as the Ayurvedic pharmacopoeia. Our commitment to quality, in ensuring that we sell only what a professional herbalist would be willing to dispense, would be at the centre of everything we would do. With that end in mind, 20% of our 120-strong team are qualified as herbalists, nutritionists or plant scientists. We are very fortunate to have expert herbalists, academic researchers, nutritionists, pharmacognosists, clinicians, analytical chemists, botanists, sustainable horticulturalists and organic agronomists leading the quality, sourcing and herbal teams; and we have reaped the rewards by the bushel.

We have developed growing methods to increase active compounds in some species by 300%. For example, in andrographis paniculata – the renowned herbal immune activator for upper respiratory tract infections – increasing the andrographolide content from 1% to 5%; or the remarkable carminative and anti-spasmodic ‘anethole’ in sweet fennel seed essential oil from 0.9% to 85% of the total oil. Wanting to avoid falling into the category described by the 2002 World Health Organization (WHO) strategy declaration, ‘finished products to which chemically defined active substances have been added, including isolated constituents from herbal materials, are not considered to be herbal’, we have also developed special extracts that concentrate the active phytochemicals while retaining the fingerprint profile of the whole plant.

For example, turmeric root (curcuma longa) has around 230 compounds. Much of the research has focused on one of the yellow pigment polyphenols, curcumin, that naturally occurs at 3–5% in turmeric root. The pharmaceuticalisation of herbalism has resulted in a health industry obsession with concentrated 95% curcumin products that are essentially isolated drug compounds – and, according to the WHO, not herbal. This isolation of one compound misses out on the well[1]documented synergistic and protective health benefits of the essential oils and other colourful pigments present in turmeric. For example, research on turmerone (one of the components of the essential oil) which has multiple uses as an immune modulator and anti-fungal (see Jankasem et al, 2013; Aggarwal et al, 2013).

With this ‘holistic’ approach in mind, we developed an extraction method for our wholistic turmeric supplement using carbon dioxide (‘super critical extraction’), alcoholic tinctures and whole herb powder that captured the curcuminoids at around 30% as well as the volatile compounds and full-spectrum of other phytonutrients – combining the best of tradition and science.

Research and the evidence base

It is important to us that we contribute to the growing evidence base for the efficacy of herbs and herbal medicine. In the last few years we have started to work with universities, hospitals and research laboratories to explore the mechanisms of action and efficacy of some of our herbs and blends. Today, for example, Pukka supports an innovative placebo-controlled human clinical study in a Tel Aviv hospital on the use of our wholistic turmeric (curcuma longa) for treating patients with familial adenomatous polyposis of the bowel; we continue our funding of a PhD with the University of Southampton in the fight against antibiotic resistance using the herbal alternative andrographis (andrographis paniculata). And, finally, we have opened up an exciting research collaboration with the University of Northumbria to look at how ashwagandha (withania somnifera) and other herbs may benefit cognitive function to help address the ever-growing epidemic of mental and emotional disorders.

Of course, our contribution is tiny compared with the huge increase in clinical research validating the benefits of herbs – more than 600 papers a year are now published on PubMed (up from 100 a year 20 years ago). There is now solid evidence for herbs being a valid choice along[1]side conventional medicines in treating mild to moderate depression, anxiety, osteoarthritis, lower back pain, self-limiting upper respiratory tract infections and chronic venous insufficiency. For instance, St John’s wort, valerian, ashwagandha, willow bark, turmeric, andrographis, echinacea and horse chestnut now demonstrate robust traditional and clinical backing.

Protecting our heritage in the legal quagmire

There is a litany of regulations with which any company selling foods, food supplements and/or herbal medicines must comply (eg Food Supplements Directive (2002/46/EC), Novel Foods Regulation (258.97), Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (No. 2006/1924), Human Medicinal Products Directive (2004/27/EC) and the Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive (THMPD) (2004/24/EC). While being instinctively cautious of over[1]regulation, we have always respected the need for regulation to make sure that companies sell the correct species, appropriately quality controlled, labelled with safe dosage and without unsubstantiated claims.

Pukka’s legal team has been active against restrictive legislation that limits our basic human right to health freedom; the freedom to access natural plant remedies and be informed about how they have been traditionally used.

Since we started Pukka, we’ve encountered a quagmire of contradictory and, oftentimes, illogical rulings. From the get-go we stumbled into a land of illogical inconsistency. The first teas we nearly made back in 2001 used a herb called stevia – a zero calorie sweetener. Unbeknown to us novices, stevia was not allowed in foods in the EU (but was in the US and Japan). Interestingly, in 2012, it became authorised for use. Over the last few years, other species have not fared so well; we have had to stop selling amla and tulsi in Denmark, a type of cinnamon and seaweed in Italy, and ashwagandha in lots of places including Ireland – although, following regulatory challenges and representations by our legal team, it has been reallowed.

Then came the infamous Traditional Herbal Medicines Product Directive which is technically complex and expensive. It offers no solution to the supposed raison d’etre of the directive: public safety. We already enjoy this protection under food legislation. At best, the most positive result of this legislation is that it may give the biomedical community more ‘faith’ in the consistency of herbal medicine. And, in our pursuit of supporting sustainable healthcare, Pukka was the major sponsor and lead coordinator of the College of Medicine Plant Medicine conference in June 2017, with support from the BHMA and 120 delegates (including many medics) viewing the exciting prospects for the use of herbs to meet new national health demands.

But are herbs safe?

The herbs that are available on the UK market are not dangerous in the same sense as tobacco, alcohol, or even drinking too much water. In fact, herbal medicine and natural products have an excellent safety record. Following an extensive review of adverse events, the chief coroner in New Zealand declared in 2005: ‘In so far as natural products are concerned the linkages to public safety and risk can be described legally as de minimis no curat lex. That is – “of minimal risk importance”’. This means that in relation to the number of users, which according to recent government polls is thought to be more than 25% of the UK population, herbs are incredibly safe. In contrast, pharmaceutical adverse events occur in 10% of users and are a leading causes of death in developed countries. Indeed, according to recent research, ‘our prescription drugs are the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer in the United States and Europe’ (Gøtzsche, 2014).

Protecting the supply

Uncontrolled wild harvesting is threatening the medicinal plants on which the herbal medicines industry depends’.

Alan Hamilton, World Wildlife Fund

It is remarkable to think that most herb species are harvested from the wild – between 75%–95%. By weight, it’s around 25% of global annual herbal harvests. Have you ever thought where your last cup of elderflower, licorice or limeflowers came from? These herbs are rarely cultivated, as they are so readily available for ‘free’ in the local environment. Wild herb collectors, among the poorest of the poor, are marginalised geographically, socially and economically. They often do not own land and are dependent financially on annual wild herb harvests. However, such unregulated harvesting, coupled with the modern pressure on ecosystems, is putting the sustainability of herbal medicines at risk.

A 2017 report by Kew Gardens, State of the World’s Plants (Willis, 2017), showed that, of the 400,000 or so flowering plants, 28,187 have some documented medicinal use. Very worryingly, one in five plants face some threat to their future survival, some of them vital contributors to the pharmacopoeia. Licorice, echinacea, goldenseal, devil’s claw, guggul-myrrh, sandalwood and slippery elm are all threatened in their natural habitats.

In order to address this crisis WWF, with Traffic and the IUCN, came together to create a third-party certified standard for ensuring that wild harvested species have a sustainable supply and are fairly traded.This is known as the FairWild standard. Protecting nature protects us individually as well as promoting global health. Pukka has been a pioneer in adopting this standard with the herbs we harvest from the wild – around 18% of our volume – ensuring that above a certain volume they are certified FairWild.

People: expect wonderful things

The essence of all beings is Earth. The essence of the Earth is water. The essence of water is plants. The essence of plants is people…

Chandogya Upanishad

When we started Pukka Herbs, we knew – well we hoped – that we were going to create something special; Tim and I were both utterly passionate about bringing plants and people together and we set off with the inspiring tailwind of Ayurveda behind us. We really wanted to be a part of the positive change that was at the heart of the organic health community and so we dived in, head first. And, wow, what a welcome we have received!

Today we are serving millions of teas and supplements every day, growing herbs on tens of thousands of acres of organic land, supporting thousands of farmers with Fair for Life wages, and introducing millions of people to the wonders of traditional herbal wisdom. There are now 120 of us working together at Pukka. We are a pretty eclectic, often hectic, but always energetic and inspired bunch of people. We’re making the best of British and do 99% of our finished manufacturing in the UK from organic ingredients sourced from many friends around the world. In our own small way, we hope we’re helping people to live healthier, happier lives and to fulfil their potential on this beautiful planet that we all share.

So, what next? We recently joined with Unilever to help us expand and grow. Their commitment to finding a sustainable way for business to bring positive impact throughout their network is sorely needed in leading the way for big business to take the responsibility for their actions and impacts. With 300 to 500 businesses controlling 70% of global trade – feeding and clothing the 7 billion of us – influencing the behaviour of these giants offers us the greatest opportunity for the positive change we urgently need to promote more regenerative business practices. As most of the world gets behind the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, it’s a once in history chance to coordinate social change through responsible government and business.

We are even more excited about Pukka Herbs now than when we started 16 years ago. It feels like our healing journey has only just begun.


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