From the editor’s desk:

Are proprietary blends useful tools, or the bane of the industry?

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

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Getty Images
The move toward transparency can run up against competitive concerns when it comes to blends. Participants at a recent botanicals conference had taken to referring to proprietary blends as the ‘bane of the industry.’

Proprietary blends refers to the practice of formulators to mash a number of ingredients together, often but not always mostly botanical ingredients, under one heading. These usually have catchy trademarked names. That is then called out as a milligram total for the entire blend on the label.  

The practice of using multiple ingredients harkens back to the original practice of herbalism itself. Many traditional medicine systems, especially Traditional Chinese Medicine, employ concerts of ingredients that are used in specific ratios to have synergistic effects.

Few ingredient lists make sense from traditional perspective

But few blends on the market seem to be put together with these specific time honored synergistic effects in mind. A couple of years ago I polled some herbal experts who said many botanical products on the shelf appeared to have been formulated by choosing ingredients from a list.

The formulas sometimes look like people just picked up a book, opened it up and found a list of herbs,​Beth Lambert, CEO of Herbalist and Alchemist told me in 2017. It’s a shotgun approach that Roy Upton, founder of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, said is still all too common in dietary supplement formulation. 

There are some companiesthat don’t have a clue. I liketo call it the ‘everything in the kitchen sink and then some more’ approach. There is no rhyme or reason to some of these formulas,​Upton said. 

“Over the years those companiesdon’t tend to last but they do tend to have excellent graphics and some exciting marketing concepts,​Lambert said. 

But what has outlasted those companies, and has been picked up by new players, is the practice of using proprietary blends.

The argument for blends

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Let’s assume an innovator has done some real digging on modes of action and potential synergies. And let’s give our hypothetical formulator the benefit of the doubt and say she has done some credible science on the finished formulation.

Then, sure, a proprietary blend is a way to keep your competitors from knocking your work off quickly, if they can identify what ratios of herbs you are using.

But are most blends formulated this way? I think that would be a hard case to make.

One size fits all for employment of blend

One example I could give is a proprietary blend employed by a big brand in the supplement business that shall go nameless here. A PR representative was trying to interest me in a new product from this brand that used the blend, which in that formulation was included at 50 mg for the whole blend. The blend itself contained nine ingredients.

I noticed another, older product from this same brand used the same blend, but at 500 mg. I pointed out to the rep that if the blend was doing something at 500 mg, what could it possibly do at 50? And with nine ingredients at 50 mg, some of those ingredients must be present in only trace amounts.

He had no answer to this question.

It is this kind of issue that caused some of the speakers at the International Conference on the Science of Botanicals​ (which wrapped up April 11 in Oxford, MS) to disparage this practice. Proprietary blends were referred to on more than one occasion as the “bane of the industry.”

Blends that hide pixie dusting undermine trust

Certainly the Oxford event is focused on science, not on marketing. It has to be taken as a given that products offered by brands that go out of business, or products that are too expensive to make and thus fail to gain traction in the market, don’t help anyone regardless of how carefully and ethically they might be made.

But by the same token, using proprietary blends as a way to hide pixie dusting, or as a way to plump up a product that has really very little science behind it, must be seen long term as a threat to the industry. 

Drugs, after all, cannot include stray ingredients just for the hell of it. They have to be made to a strict formulation, the one that was approved by FDA. But supplements can include ingredients that do nothing, and that everybody in the know knows do nothing. Is this kind of open secret good for the industry long term?

There was a car model I remember from when I was a kid. An Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, a station wagon that had a raised roof over the second and third row of seats with little windows along the side of the roof that faced upward. Everyone knew that these little windows did nothing (unless you were a birdwatcher, maybe?), and were included for mere style.  

How would consumers like it if they knew that some of the ingredients in the products they trust were in the same category? Things included just for show by formulators who assume the consumers are too ignorant to know the difference?

FDA has rules about labels, which brands must adhere to upon their peril. But a proprietary blend can be labeled in full accord with these regulations yet still deceive consumers, in effect. I don’t have a clean answer for how this kind of proprietary pixie dusting can be averted. If retailers and/or trade associations had some firm guidelines to the effect that only efficacious dosages should be used in products, it could be a start.

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