PREMISE: Advocating the processing and packaging of soap berries in the US and Canada is subjective, but I firmly believe it’s good advise for many reasons (details to follow). There are absolutely no prejudices or judgments whatsoever regarding the quality of any workers in the US, Canada, Southeast Asia, or anywhere in the world. My commentary is based solely upon first-hand observation and knowledge of the processes and conditions involved – never human beings.
For a very good reason: Your health.
Let’s first be clear, raw soap nuts (aka soap berries, soapberries, soapnuts, Chinese soap nuts, blah, blah, blah…as they are harvested from the trees) are not “made” in the USA. I refer to the processing and packaging of the bulk soap nuts – and production of other soap nut products. Albeit some soap nut tree species grow here, the sapindus mukorossi and trifoliatus soapberry species are virtually all grown in Asia. They are the superior soap nuts species for numerous reasons. (Yea, you’ll have to look through other articles. I’ve written enough about that already on SoapNutsPro.)
However, there is certainly a true “made in” scenario when we refer to soap nut powders or liquids. These are soap nut products that do require manufacturing of some form. btw: When I state, “in the USA”, I do not mean to exclude our Canadian friends and neighbors. For the purpose of this article, I view both US and Canadian production as domestically produced, and to be of equally high standards.
As far as our South American neighbors, I have no data to refer to. I received wild harvested saponaria soap nuts from a Mexican family who had collected them. Beyond that, zip. I wasn’t overly fond of the saponaria species, but they were similar to the smaller trifoliatus soap berries. I remain an avid fan of mukorossi soap nuts, but there is unquestionable merit to be given to trifoliatus and saponaria. In time, I’ll post more data how the species compare. For the time being, there are just too many efficacy data gaps for conclusions.
All that aside, let’s get to the meat of this article:
Buy soap nuts processed and packaged in the USA or Canada. Yes, I’ve been saying this over and over. Also, USDA (Ecocert) Certified Organic soap nuts would be best given the additional anti-contamination and higher sanitation requirements placed upon the producers.
However, even regardless of certifications from whomever or wherever, any agricultural product that’s been packaged overseas – for retail sale – has gone a very long time without any physical inspection or testing. That means many months. or even years, have passed since being checked! Most are imported by sea. That’s months before they even reach shore.
This is a seriously bad scenario that can lead to a host of problems. A key reason why Maggie’s Pureland Soap Nuts went out of business was due to sealed product that went bad. It developed condensation in the sealed plastic bags and over time the soap berries turned into a gross, gummy, glob of soap nuts . Not cool. (God only knows how they may have lab tested.) Returns skyrocketed. And worst of all: The whole market got a black eye.
Maggie’s was #1 in the USA at the time, and many “would be” users today were likely so turned off that they’d never buy soap nuts again. Who could blame such an unknowing consumer? They were disgusting. I adamantly promote certified organic soap berries that are packaged for retail in the USA or Canada. That requires packaging by an “authorized” USDA Organic Processor and Handler – by law. Regardless of what you may see or read, there are very few companies big enough to be able to pay for, and meet, all the USDA National Organic Program regulations. Don’t believe everything you may read or be told. There’s a lot of fraud in the “certified organic” world.
Let me provide you a good, rock-solid example why you should buy domestically packaged soap nuts – and absolutely any processed soap nut product. This example is about Ritha powder, but all the fundamentals of the inherent problem with overseas packaging are exactly the same. Check this out:
As reported by the Canadian social news media source, NowPublic, the distributor(s) and seller(s) for Hesh Aritha (soap nuts) powder had product recalled from Canadian retailers for containing “high bacterial counts”. This soap nut product is manufactured, packaged and sealed by its producer in India, hence the bacteria originated there. Not to gross you out, but the bacteria has been determined to be caused by “contact with feces”. The report goes on to state, “This Hesh Aritha Powder may be accidentally inhaled or enter open wounds along with its load of bacteria…Do not use the Hesh Aritha Powder. You may dispose of it in the garbage or return it to the store where you purchased it.” Read the press release here.
For those that don’t know: Aritha powder is primarily known and sold as an organic (as in natural, not “Certified” Organic) hair care treatment and/or natural shampoo. It has deep roots in Ayurvedic hair care. “Hesh Aritha” is simply the branding of the product. Just Google it. It’s still an esoteric product, but you’ll find it all over. Hesh Pharma is the actual manufacturer in India. They’ve been producing a variety of herbal skin and hair products since 1978.
Now this is where it gets even more interesting. Hesh Pharma is by all standards an established business and manufacturer. To the best of my knowledge and research, they are a good company with a good reputation. It’s only been in more recent years that soap nuts have gained greatly in popularity. It’s only common sense to realize that a manufacturer will follow the demand. I will repeat something else I’ve stated many times: The soap nuts market is still in its infancy stage. However, we have companies here at home (USA and Canada) that have brought entirely new levels of sophistication to the market. It has only been within the last two years of harvests that official USDA and Ecocert certifications have been issued for soap nuts. Even Hesh Pharma does not yet have USDA and Ecocert certification, albeit they apparently are applying for GMP certification (relating to dietary supplements). That’s a good thing…
Applying a bit of logic, it’s reasonable to assume that this problem was more widespread than the Canadian release refers to. I highly doubt that Hesh Pharma went further than they needed to in regards to recalling products. Companies (even the best of them) tend to let their sleeping dogs lie. One can only speculate as to how widespread the problem actually was. They were simply “busted” by our diligent Canadian friends. Where and what similarly troubled products have/has not been identified? Who knows?
So, where am I going with this?
It doesn’t take much to start a non-food processing company in most of Asia (nor anywhere for that matter). The work conditions often found in Asia, and in particular Southeast Asia, are often unsanitary. Anybody with some coffee grinders, a bin of soap nuts, and a bunch of workers could produce a product such as Hesh Aritha powder. (You can make it home!) Any export broker can sell such a product almost anywhere in the world. It’s really that simple.
Given the low labor cost, the net result is that such low cost products become attractive to sellers (until it is recalled as in the above noted case). Hindsight is always 20/20. The average retailer looks at profitability first and foremost. That’s business. If you can sell it, buy it cheaply, and have a supplier – you’re in business.
Stick with good domestic companies that have long established reputations. Look for products produced and packaged in the USA or Canada. Remember that many brands carry the name of a US or Canadian company, but that does not mean it was packaged there. You must look. You must ask if not spelled out.
Here’s a good example of soap nuts that are obviously packaged overseas. But, this one is easy. It’s very common to see much more “American-ized” names. But the product is often similar.
The following text is the online description in its entirety. Notice that there are very few details at all. “Whole” at least is a clue that they are not de-seeded, and the picture also shows no signs of deseeding. At $4.00 plus shipping for 100 grams (3.5oz) my bet is they are trifoliatus for that would be about the going rate for such.
“Nirav Aritha Whole (Soap Nuts)”
“These round, sour berries have been used for centuries in India as a natural cleansing soap. They contain a large amount of Saponin in their shells, which acts as natural and gentle cleanser when it comes in contact with water. They are used extensively as a natural component in soaps and shampoos. They can be soaked in water overnight until soft, and rubbed onto the scalp and hair to stimulate the scalp, and promote healthy and glossy hair. Aritha can also be used as a natural detergent in laundry care as well.”
So, if it is not clearly spelled out, it is most likely packaged in Southeast Asia. Sellers of US or Canadian produced and/or packaged soap nut products will make a significant point of spelling it out. – It’s a big plus for most experienced buyers. Most sellers of overseas produced or packaged product typically avoid the issue. You may have to drill a bit, or ask questions. Btw: “Shipped from the USA (or Canada)” does not mean it was either produced or packaged there. It’s totally meaningless – and intentionally misleading. (Clever wording though.) Virtually all retail purchases in North America are shipped from either the USA or Canada. Duh… C’mon…we weren’t born yesterday.
Additional notes about soap nut powders and liquids:
You can’t determine the species or condition of the soap berries when converted to soap nuts powder. We have no way to determine how much dirt, leaves and debris were in the soap nuts before being powdered. We have no idea of how clean the soap berries were.
As I have noted elsewhere, I’m not a fan of buying soap nut powder in the first place. My reasons:
1. It’s relatively expensive and you can grind it yourself at home – as long as you don’t have overly “sticky” or gummy soap nuts. I’ve discussed that issue at length in the “How to Buy Soap Nuts” article.
2. It’s relatively expensive to use for laundry given that it ends up down the drain before all the saponin is released.
3. As just noted above: We don’t know the quality of the soap nuts it was produced from.
If you prefer NOT using soap nuts in the traditional wash bag method for laundry, I highly recommend using liquid. The issue of bacteria and nearly any form of contamination becomes moot. You boil the soap nuts to make a liquid. Just as in purifying lake or river water to be safe to drink, the boiling will kill any nasty things. btw: I don’t recommend making soap nut liquid in the “sun-made tea” fashion. Yea, it’s a “greener” way, but the water temperature never gets high enough to effectively kill any potential contaminants. Hopefully this is just common sense. On this note (as again discussed elsewhere), use care when making your own botanical liquid at home. As with all water-based botanical liquids, your homemade soap nut liquid has a short shelf life. Citric acid will not be adequate to provide full-spectrum protection. Freezing is the best way to preserve it. I love the ice cube technique for being easy-to-use whenever desired.
As for the commercial soap nuts liquids, there are brands such as Maggies, Almawin’s Cleannut and NaturOli’s Extreme 18X. Almawin’s facility is actually in Germany, but I feel they are an exception to my “Made is USA / Canada” rule. I’m very comfortable that Almawin has an excellent and clean facility. From my experience, it seems like there’s little that the Germans don’t do right. It looks like Germany’s Electrolux will be the first manufacturer of a washing machine designed to use soap nuts. I show a prototype of it in the “Soap Nuts – The Best High Efficiency (HE) Detergent” post. I’ve discussed Extreme 18X elsewhere on the site, so I won’t get into again other than mentioning that it is by far the closest thing to pure saponin available anywhere.
With all that said:
Soap nuts / soap berries are destined to be a major player in the detergent, soap, cleaners, skin and hair care industries. They are in the right place at the right time in this green age where chemical alternatives are highly sought after. The benefits of soap nuts and saponin are indisputable. As the Green Dot Award jury put it in regards to NaturOli’s work with saponin, “…possibly the most significant green innovation in history…”
Enjoy all those wonders soap nuts offer us! Just be a little smarter (and safer) than the average bear before you buy soap nuts or any soap nut products.
NOTE: I was recently chastised by a seller for this post. The rationale being that it’s better to support laborers overseas than “pimply-faced, beer-drinking teens working for minimum wage”. No kidding. That’s quote/unquote. Hmmm… The fact is that villagers and families harvest and initially sort nearly all the soap berries in the annual harvest. They then sell them in bulk to the exporters at the prevailing commodity prices. (Demand is a good thing…hint, hint.) These harvesters and sorters (often children) are not affected whatsoever by the commercial packaging by the exporting companies. The exporters would prefer the packaging done there. More profit. Be assured that these profits end up with the exporters – not the most impoverished locals and villagers. If you ever visit there, you can see this first-hand. Present day India has strictly enforced labor laws over businesses. So, any way you shake it, this is completely unfounded nonsense – only supportive of the low relative “for hire” cost of labor in these regions.
A FINAL NOTE: As a USA consumer, I avoid product in only metric weights for two reasons:
1 – They can be confusing. I don’t like to having to recalculate and convert the weights.
2 – They almost always indicate overseas packaging.