The Consumer Republic: Herbal’s Essence

Unnerved by our increasing dependence on digital appliances, we turn to herbs as a sign of nature’s benevolence.
What do you think of when I say the word “herbs?” If you say cilantro and basil, you’re hopelessly stuck in the ’80s. Get out of the kitchen and into the medicine cabinet, where Tylenol shares shelf space with stinging nettles and valerian edges out valium.
There’s senna to move the bowels. Ginkgo biloba to sharpen the mind. St.-John’s-wort to lighten the spirits. In Seattle, the town that launched an entire lifestyle around regular doses of premium-priced caffeine, trendoids at the Gravity Bar ask for shots of ginseng in their banana-cranberry smoothies. At this fall’s InterBev show, the expo aisles were crowded with green teas, “interactive” think drinks claiming to grease the synapse paths of the brain, “superoxygenated” bottled waters and health tonics fortified with wonder ingredients, such as “selligilene.”
Who can blame companies such as South Beach Beverages (based in Connecticut) for trying? After all, peddling health is how the Coca-Cola Co. got its start. Americans are old fans of herbal pharmacology. Consider alcohol, a herbal distillate which was smoothing the jagged edges of anxiety long before anyone this side of Polynesia heard of kava-kava, or tobacco, the leaf that was sharpening the mind in the days when only your landscaper knew that gingko was a tree. Smoking is not just a malevolent addiction; it’s also a form of herbal self-medication.
As millions of smokers can testify, herbal medicines do work. History, common sense and, yes, even science confirm it. The drugs and compounds found in plants are effective for the exact same chemical reasons their synthetic pharmaceutical cousins are. But their efficacy can hardly explain why hordes of consumers are rejecting the medicine of the research scientists for the folk wisdom of the herbal pharmacy.
Like so many grabber consumer trends, the herbal lifestyle offers us a way to have our proverbial cake and eat it too. It’s a packaged-good that connects us to terra firma in an age in which technology has both liberated and alienated us from the limits of space and time. In a society obsessively focused on the future, herbal medicine harkens to the past, reaching back to medieval moms who soothed their babies’ colic with doses of dillweed.
Unnerved by our increasing dependence on digital appliances, we turn to herbs as a sign of nature’s benevolence, a reliable force in an insecure world. “Quality health from God’s pharmacy,” runs the slogan of one herb supplement brand. “Trust the leaf.” “Put your faith in nature and your trust in Nature’s Herbs,” boasts another. Only a society estranged from nature dare be so sentimental about it.
So who would you trust: your doctor, who’s slogged through years of med school, or Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century Alanis Morissette, who was a famous herbalist? Which is more credible: the FDA, that poky bureaucracy that keeps drugs off the market until they’ve been tested, or the Botanical Research and Education Institute of Santa Fe, N.M., promoter of tincture of barberry before meals? Herbal medicine is the people’s medicine, not the privileged knowledge of a special few. As suggested in Celestial Seasonings’ slogan, “What you do for you,” the herbal movement is the self-cure of the Consumer Republic.
Our waning faith in scientific medicine brings us full circle to the days of patented elixirs, the very product on which modern advertising honed its message. One of the ad game’s first successes, Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, was a true herbal concoction (19 percent alcohol content) first brewed from plant roots and fenugreek seed in Pinkham’s kitchen in1875.
During the 1890s, Pinkham’s sons, early advertising enthusiasts, boosted sales 2,500 percent by investing 44 percent of revenues in a multimedia campaign of print, outdoor and transit ads that featured their mother’s sedate Quaker visage. “A sure cure for all Female Weaknesses,” read one, “including leucorrhea, irregular and painful menstruation, inflammation and ulceration of the womb, flooding, prolapsus uteri, etc. Physicians use it and prescribe it.” Oh, those poor saps.
Innocent of the wiles of advertising, those turn-of-the-century naifs could be snookered by pseudo-scientific blather. But is there much difference in Pinkham’s pitch and a contemporary ad for Solgar’s Iso-Soy soy protein/isoflavone concentrated powder? It boasts “important phytonutrients” that “are receiving great attention within the scientific community for their potent antioxidant activity and for their potential ability to help regulate hormonal imbalance in women, positively affect bone mass and reduce blood cholesterol levels.” What is an isoflavone? Why are phytonutrients important? Who cares? Like “prolapsus uteri,” it sounds important–and that works as well on 1990s saps as it did on the 1890s kind. Phytonutrient, schmytonutrient. It’s all Retsyn to me.