For most of the last decade, branded ingredients in the supplements world were attempts by raw materials ingredient suppliers to become the “Intel Inside” of pills. Ester-C, a nonacidic form of vitamin C, is probably about as Intel as it’s ever gotten; last November, Brandweek magazine said Ester-C had higher brand equity than Excedrin. Other brandedsupplements ingredients also have reached prominence—Advantra Z (bitter orange), Tonalin (conjugated linoleic acid), Pycnogenol (pine bark) and CoroWise (phytosterols).
These branded ingredients have a tacit acknowledgement of superiority to commodity ingredients—with published research to vouch for their safety and efficacy, probably proprietary, perhaps patented, with a nice name and a fancy logo to round out the package.
“Branded ingredient suppliers would try to convey to you that their ingredient was better based on how it’s processed, how stable it is, what time of year it’s picked, if it’s harvested on a full moon, making a claim—overt or implied—that it’s better,” says Anthony Almada, CEO of GENR8, a new global sport nutrition company based in Dana Point, Calif.
But a funny thing happened on the way to product quality. In the last year or so, change has come to the ingredient supply world and has filtered downstream to product labels—and the trend is not at all change you can believe in. Even Intel itself has fallen into a bit of disrepute.
Call it the commoditization of branded ingredients: commodity ingredients with the outward appearance of being branded—clever name, snazzy logo. But lift up the hood, and there’s no there there. No research, no intellectual property, nothing special.
“You’re absolutely right that’s what’s happening,” says Suzanne Shelton, president of the Shelton Group, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based public relations agency that’s been representing suppliers and finished product manufacturers for 20 years. “Companies had been putting forth the effort and investment in science, innovation, patents, trademarked logo and education work around what makes an ingredient proprietary and real. Now, other companies say, ‘We can sell more stuff if we just give it a name,’ and it’s not the same thing. You might assume if it’s a branded ingredient it has science behind it. But you can no longer assume that.”
Reputable ingredient suppliers agree with that assessment. And they are not amused—threatened is a better word.
“It’s easy now to register a name, so any brand-name ingredient does not immediately translate to superior quality,” explains Ron Udell, president of OptiPure Brand/Kenko International, a raw ingredients supplier based in Los Angeles. “There are some companies that rush to market, take a generic and give it a name, but do not have the platform to support the ingredient.”
Eric Anderson, brand manager for Morristown, N.J.-based ingredient supplier PL Thomas, agrees. “Imitators have followed the model of ingredients with a funny name on them and call them unique,” he says. “The problem is that of the literally more than 3,000 brands on the market today, 99 percent of them are commodities with funny names.”
The upshot is that a year or two ago, if you saw a capitalized brand name on the ingredient label, especially one with an ingredient logo in living color on the side of the label, the easy assumption was that the product contained superior ingredients, and you could use that to explain away the product’s higher price to consumers.
That easy calculus is no more.
PL Thomas supplies a number of bona fide branded ingredients, such as 5-Loxin, a proprietary, purified extract of frankincense that is faster acting than your Old Testament frankincense; published studies show it can improve joint comfort within seven days. The research is so compelling that 5-Loxin’s benefit is splashed across the packaging of Osteo Bi-Flex, the top-selling joint-health supplement on the market. PL Thomas’ exclusive licensing arrangement with manufacturer Rexall Sundown gives Osteo Bi-Flex a clear market advantage—and provides retailers with a good story to tell shoppers.
The commoditization of branded ingredients, on the other hand, is “muddying the water, making things confusing,” Anderson says. “When a legitimate, unique product comes onto the market, they have to convince the industry it truly is unique and not another me-too product.”
The new equation
How, then, to separate the quality wheat from the faux chaff? The new math, unfortunately, means more homework for you. If you’re not into the long division of calling manufacturers or suppliers to ask if there’s any research behind that flashy ingredient on the label, you can use the calculator-enhanced equation of surfing the web. Legitimate branded ingredients likely have a website that details the research, the intellectual property and other salient items that create the story for why this ingredient really is superior.
“Spend 10 minutes online on it—if you haven’t found any information, then it’s not a real science-backed ingredient,” Shelton says. “With a little bit of homework you can find out if the logo indicates a science-backed proprietary ingredient and whether it’s worthwhile, or it’s crap.”
Todd Runestad says his brand name—honed by more than a dozen years reporting on the natural products industry—is worth more than the paper it’s written on. He is the science editor for Functional Ingredients.