Growing demand for natural products by health-conscious consumers has prompted Gaia Herbs to begin a nearly $5 million expansion of its production facilities in Brevard.

“People are flocking to our brand,” says Todd King, vice president of marketing. “We’re in growth mode.”

Gaia is a privately held company founded in 1987 in western Massachusetts by Ric Scalzo. Scalzo, a visionary entrepreneur who has been at the forefront of the global demand for trustworthy natural products, is president and CEO.

Scalzo moved Gaia to North Carolina in 1997 when he discovered, then bought, a 250-acre organic farm in Brevard. It has subsequently grown to 350 acres and helped enable Gaia to become the nation’s largest organic herbal products brand, achieving double-digit revenue growth in each of the last four years.

During that span the company’s workforce has nearly tripled from 91 to 240 people, and more employees are being hired. Gaia’s website lists about two dozen job openings.

Earlier this year Gaia raised $20,865,283 in debt and equity financing from 10 investors for general purposes, according to a Form D filing in February with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

“It’s very exciting to see Gaia’s continued growth,” said Jonathan Snover, Ph.D., executive director of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s Western Office. “They have been a major factor in cementing Western North Carolina’s reputation as a natural products community. The public appears to be increasingly interested in natural approaches to addressing health issues and we at the Biotechnology Center want to support this trend in any way possible.”

Ric Scalzo, Gaia Herbs founder, president and CEO, has led the company’s growth since moving it to Brevard from western Massachusetts in 1997. — Gaia photos

Gaia sells more than 200 medicinal herb products in 15 categories including liquid herbal extracts, herbal teas, organic herbal liquids, children’s formulas, functional foods and more. The products are derived from a diverse range of herbal plants, from acerola to yohimbe.

Gaia now grows about a third of its plants in Brevard and at its 60,000-square-foot greenhouse in Mills River, south of Asheville.

“The reason that Gaia is here is that it’s one of the most botanically rich areas,” King says. “Because of the climate, the amazing soils and the amount of rain and sunlight, 80 percent of the plants in the world can be grown in Western North Carolina. It’s pretty profound. We love North Carolina.”

The company also has a large farm in Costa Rica that extends its growing season to year round. The balance of its plants are supplied by certified organic farmers and “wildcrafters” who sustainably harvest plants from nature.

Gaia’s products address dozens of health and wellness needs such as stress, digestion, muscle function, energy, heart health, menopause, weight, vision, digestive health and many more.

They are sold through online retailers, including Amazon, and at specialty grocers such as Earth Fare, Whole Foods and local food co-ops. Larger grocery chains such as Wegmans are also beginning to carry its products.

A professional solutions division supplies Gaia’s products to health practitioners.

Functional foods, those that have a positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition, are a growth area for the company, King says.

Food is medicine

Many of Gaia’s functional foods contain turmeric, an herb long used in holistic medicine to treat indigestion, throat infections, liver ailments and skin sores and wounds. Turmeric extracts are also being studied for their antifungal and antibacterial properties and their potential role in treating kidney and cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, cancer, irritable bowel disease, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes.

“Food is medicine,” King says, and many people are growing more discerning about the type and quality of the foods and supplements they consume.

“I think that’s why we’re seeing this growth,” he says. “People are just getting smarter. The receptivity is there.”

The company’s mantra is “purity plus integrity equals potency.”

Although Gaia uses no genetically modified organisms in its products, it does rely on biotechnology to verify the contents of those products. It has developed a DNA-validated, botanical reference standards library and statistics-based identity program.

Applying science to assure natural, organic purity

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center has championed Gaia as a leading life science job creator honoring Western North Carolina’s unique and diverse ecosystem. Gaia has partnered in NCBiotech support activities for the region, including participation on NCBiotech’s regional advisory committee, which focuses on job creation through commercialization of the most appropriate Western North Carolina life science assets.

“The technical breakthroughs we’ve achieved have the potential to benefit the entire natural products industry and enable a higher level of safety, responsibility and transparency for everyone,” says Jeremy Stewart, Ph.D., Gaia’s chief scientist and vice president of scientific affairs.

“Our methods tell consumers exactly what’s contained in the herbal products they purchase. We’re working at the same level of scientific analysis and accuracy as CSI chemical fingerprinting,” he adds, referring to the techniques used by crime scene investigators.

Gaia also has a “Meet Your Herbs” program that allows consumers to trace the full history of each product by entering the product’s code on the company’s website.

“You can see exactly where it was grown, the processing steps, plus a certificate of authenticity,” King says.

Gaia’s culture of stewardship, sustainability and holistic living not only resonates with customers, King says. It also translates into “amazing perks” for the company’s employees.

“We have a chef who works with our company and provides meals for our employees,” he says. Gaia also provides employees with organic fruits and vegetables grown on the company’s farm.

(C) N.C. Biotechnology Center