For more than 25 years, BI Nutraceuticals has been supplying the world's growing market for herbs and herbal extracts, unique fruit and vegetable ingredients, customised blends and functional formulas.
"It's a fascinating market," says George Pontiakos, BI's president and CEO. "Herbal remedies and homeopathic have been around since the dawn of man. Interest waned as pharmacies and industrial nations took hold, but a lot of the world still relies on them as their major form of medicine.
"America has a stellar history of herbal folklore and homeopathic medicines from the American Indians, the Aleutians and others. Much of this legacy was lost during industrialisation, but now that level of interest has come back into North America, and I think it's a very strong growth industry."
North America, in fact, is the largest market for Pontiakos' Long Beach, California-based company, followed closely by Canada and Mexico. "But we also sell a lot into Asia and Europe, Pontiakos says. "Our customers sell our raw materials in finished form globally, so there's not a continent that we don't touch."
The sheer volume of products the company produces is impressive — more than 700 herbal powders alone, plus innovative new extracts such as the high-ORAC products RoseOx, from rosemary, and Rossentia, which not only contains potent compounds to reduce free radicals in the body, but is also a food preservative.
"I would say the products we sell the most, in terms of tonnage, include guarana into the energy drink market, psyllium into the food and nutraceutical market, saw palmetto, echinacea, black cohosh, ginkgo and ginseng," Pontiakos says. "In terms of revenue, guarana has been a very good product for us, and superfruits such as açai, bilberry, and blueberry. We've sold a lot of resveratrol, too."
But, he says, the part of BI's business that is really growing is custom blending. "You give us a number of components, we package that for you. We'll source those 20, or 60 or however many components you require, blend them into a prepackaged drum. Then that gets shipped to your co-packer to be put into their assembly line. It's a just-in-time product, and it saves you a lot of cost. Do you really want to source 16 products and determine if they're what they say they are, clean and so on?"
Which leads to yet another thing Pontiakos points to with pride — the company's proprietary systems for identification and sterilisation of raw materials, Identilok and Protexx HP, respectively.
"We identify everything by multiple methods. We do it by sight, reference standards, and machines that identify the herb down to the marker compounds. We have botanists on staff, and even they are conflicted sometimes as to the species, so the only way to positively identify everything is to go down to the chemical level. Our certificates of analysis are the most comprehensive in the biz."
Then there's sterilisation. "Other companies are not doing low-moisture, high-heat sterilisation. No one else can afford it [Each machine costs $1 million, he says]. Wet steam is not as efficient. It causes clumping and many other problems." Pontiakos says it took several years to perfect the hundreds of strict protocols for sterilisation. "Each thing has a different tolerance for heat, moisture, you name it. Each one has to be handled individually."
And as for trends that will affect his market, he says "Condition-specific marketing is growing huge. At the recent Expo West, I went by the Odwalla booth [BI provides some of Odwalla's ingredients]. They must've had 80 different labels for condition-specific marketing.
"Ultimately what I'd like people to know about our company," he says, "is that we are here to support your growth. We exist for our customers. We're a market-driven, sales-driven company where the customer is first. Our job is to be transparent in their process."