Customers see “new and improved!” slogans at every turn. But does the statement mean a product has been trivially tweaked or totally revamped? When it comes to dietary supplements, splashy reformulation tags may indicate either substantial or minor modifications.
Reformulating is a tricky business, according to Dr. Keri Marshall, medical director for Gaia Herbs. She says the Brevard, N.C.-based company would choose to launch a new product entirely rather than change an existing one and risk alienating customers. “We have such a dedicated consumer base that if we reformulate, they’ll think something was wrong with it or they’ll say, ‘This product worked for me—why would you do that?’ and we’ll lose them,” she says.
Nevertheless, many companies find that reformulating is necessary from time to time, and if consumers understand why, they’ll climb on board. Here’s the nitty-gritty on some recent changes manufacturers have made and why.
Renovating based on research
“We often modify our formulas usually based on new information that comes out about a particular nutrient or compound,” says Mark Becker, director of communications at Jarrow Formulas, based in Los Angeles. “For example, we’ve increased the vitamin D content [from 400 IU to 1,000 IU] in our formulas, owing to studies that now recommend higher intakes.” The company also has removed glucosamine from its Bone Up product. Although Jarrow formulators originally assumed that some glucosamine was better than none, the current wisdom says the dose in the product was too low to be truly effective, Becker says. Bone Up’s glucosamine was replaced by potassium citrate, which was shown in a 2006 study in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology to alkalize the blood and protect against bone resorption.
MegaFood, based in Derry, N.H., added more than vitamin D when it overhauled its line of multivitamins. “A lot of people are also deficient in trace minerals”—such as boron, manganese and selenium—“and in macrominerals such as magnesium and chromium,” says marketing director Stacey Gillespie, citing research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that indicates soil nutrient levels have diminished markedly in the past century.
Adapting to availability
Zand, based in Ferndale, Wash., recently reformulated its Organic Herbalozenge line. “At times, we have been unable to get a consistent supply of organic orange-juice powder, especially after years with poor citrus harvests,” explains Zand Brand Manager Erin Campbell. “So we might switch to other fruit powders, such as papaya, that might be available as organic at the time.” Sometimes the issue occurs in reverse. For example, Bloomingdale, Ill.-based Now Foods is changing its chlorella to organic because organic chlorella is more widely available now than in years past, says Neil Levin, the company’s education manager and product formulator. Because of its greater supply, the price won’t change.
“We may change [how easily a product dissolves] to make sure nutrients are bioavailable, or make a change to improve the stability characteristics of a product,” says Travis Borchardt, vice president of regulatory affairs at Green Bay, Wis.-based Enzymatic Therapy.
“An example would be sodium croscarmellose [modified cellulose gum], which acts as a wicking and swelling agent, causing the solid dosage form to physically break up into pieces.” The company also recently changed its multivitamin tablet-coating system. “We went from a titanium-dioxide-based coating to a system that we’re calling OrganiGlide,” Borchardt says. “It consists of organic spirulina, colorant ingredients and organic acacia; it adds a glide factor and makes it easier to swallow.”
Responding to demand
MegaFood’s Gillespie says consumers helped drive that brand’s reformulation. “People are very concerned about allergens—not only in their foods but also in their multivitamins—so we took out any source of soy and gluten.” Levin agrees that consumer perception—whether it’s based in science or not—can influence reformulations. “We want some of our formulas to have vitamin D in some of the forms that people believe to be better,” says Levin. “As a nutritionist, I believe the superiority of D3 over D2 to be largely a myth.” Yet the people want D3, so NOW provides it. But how does the company know what the people want? In this case, demand is not created by advertising executives sitting in corner offices in New York. “We get inquiries [from customers] in the order of 2,000 a month—requests for information, how to use the products, how they’re made and quality issues,” Levin says.
Selling the changes
It’s one thing to make a change but, as Gaia’s Marshall points out, it’s another thing entirely to get consumers to embrace it. John O’Connor, Jarrow’s specialist in quality control and research and development, says his company’s R&D department alerts the marketing team whenever a revision is made. “The sales staff is informed and trainings are conducted,” says O’Connor. “The technical writers, in conjunction with the marketing department and the information technology department, make all relevant changes to our literature, advertisements and website. The graphics department [modifies] the label to reflect the latest revision.”
NOW takes a similar tack: “We can make some specific statements [on the label] to let people know—‘Now contains lutein and lycopene,’ or ‘Now gluten free,’” Levin says. “For example, our Liquid Multi was once in a base of milk protein, which became rice protein as a good-tasting, easily soluble, non-GMO source became available. Then it became ‘vegetarian/vegan.’” When making lesser changes like tweaking minor potencies, the company is less likely to call out the change on the label, Levin says.
Of course, if a price change is involved, consumers want to know why. But many changes, such as NOW’s switch to organic chlorella and Zand’s Herbalozenge flavor revisions, allow prices to remain consistent. However, other modifications can mean a price bump.
“Sometimes the price even goes down,” O’Connor says. “It all depends on the nature of the revision. Was a particular existing ingredient increased or decreased? What was removed—or added—if anything? Will granulation be required? Will granulation no longer be necessary? Will the blending time take longer or will it be shorter? Will more raw material testing be needed and for what?” Borchardt adds, “If the change involves improving product efficacy or quality, the consumer is very receptive and the impact on sales is generally positive.”
Laurie Budgar is a Longmont, Colo-based freelance writer.