Herbal industry increasingly backed by data, Rainbow Light's new science director says

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Herbal industry increasingly backed by data, Rainbow Light's new science director says

Related tags Alternative medicine

The transformation of Rainbow Light mirrors that of the herbal industry as a whole, the company's new director of integrative science says.  Christopher Hobbs, a fairly newly-minted PhD, has worked with the firm as a formulator from the beginning as the company increasingly put its products on a solid science footing.

Rainbow Light, a leading multivitamin brand in the natural channel, was founded first on a belief in the benefits of spirulina, Hobbs said.  A ‘whole food’ approach was always the guiding principle, but in the company’s beginnings in the mid 80s it was more a matter of belief rather than in reference to any hard data.

Guiding principles, but not much science

“Rainbow Light was one of the first if not the first company, instead of just using straight vitamins in a multivitamin product, to add the herbal component,”​ Hobbs told NutraIngredients-USA.  “The idea was with herbs to get a more systems-wide approach. The effort was to make it more like food so it would be better utilized, rather than just pumping the system full of vitamins.

“That theme is still present, but in the early days there was not much science behind it, really,”​ he said.

Hobbs has a long history with the company. He had trained as an acupuncturist and practiced traditional Chinese medicine when he first started collaborating with Rainbow Light on formulations in 1984.

“I started using traditional formulation techniques, to harmonize the formulas energetically.  Then we started going into functional foods and we slowly got more sophisticated and we started to look at what does science have to say about this,”​ he said.

Transformative journey

Rainbow Light Christopher Hobbs
Christopher Hobbs, PhD.

Hobbs said he felt he needed additional training to help guide that movement and entered later in life a PhD program at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was finished his doctoral program in integrative biology about seven months ago. Hobbs said his journey matched that of the company’s and what he has seen in the industry as a whole.

“It went from an ad hoc, hippie philosophy that whole food is better, green is better, to then going into traditional medicine concepts like TCM or Ayurveda.  We are not abandoning those principles but are adding on a hard look at scientific data to back up what we are doing,”​ he said.

“You have to be trained to interpret the studies, to evaluate the study design, the dosages, the regime, and to make a judgement about the statistical power,”​ Hobbs said. “We all realized that the whole industry is moving toward more scientific rigor, and now that I have impeccable credentials in that area I can help guide that.”

Longtime herbalist

Hobbs is a fourth-generation herbalist, licensed acupuncturist and botanist. With more than 35 years of clinical experience in herbal medicine, Hobbs has authored 25 books, including Women's Herbs, Women's Health ​and his most recent, Grow It, Heal It,​ published by Rodale Books in 2013. Hobbs founded the Institute for Natural Products research and lectures widely on herbal topics.

Additionally, Hobbs has taught at universities and medical schools, such as Stanford Medical School, Yale Medical School, Bastyr University and the National School of Naturopathic Medicine. For six years, Hobbs taught in the Integrative Biology Department at the University of California, Berkeley while completing his PhD. His research involved phylogenetics, evolutionary biology, phytochemistry, and ethno pharmacology. In 2005, he was the recipient of the Natural Products Association's Clinician Award.

Balancing act

Rainbow Light offers an extensive line of multivitamins, condition-specific supplements and other products. Hobbs said in his new role he will help in the balancing act every such company must go through between getting the highest shelf ingredients possible and achieving realistic price points.

“We are just inundated with companies that are trying to sell us branded ingredients all the time.  These are companies taking the time to do science on their ingredients.  Evaluating those ingredients is not always easy.  Everybody says, ‘my ingredients is better absorbed, better utilized,’ ”​ Hobbs said.

Hobbs said one of his guiding principles in such cases is to fall back on his extensive experience as a clinician.  The best ingredient does no good if consumers won’t take it, either because of pill size, organoleptic properties or because the product ends up being just too expensive.

“As a practicing herbalist I know the the number one way you can make herbs effective is to take them regularly, prefereably twice a day.  If you don’t take them regularly, they are not nearly as effective,” ​he said.

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