Over the last 20 years, the role of science and research in the natural products space has evolved.
Back in the 1990s, many dietary supplement lines featured products with similar, if not nearly identical, basic nutritional formulas. The prevailing wisdom was: nobody will pay for nutrient studies since you can’t patent the ingredients.
While some products boasted better absorption or enhanced tolerability (e.g., esterified vitamin C), others focused on any of a number of superstar nutrients or botanicals, such as selenium or kava.
There were also a variety of absorbability/effectiveness wars that invoked science, including glucosamine/chondroitin, shark/bovine cartilage, garlic (allicin-yield), and pine-bark/grape-seed OPCs.
Eventually these spats were resolved by science---establishing which ingredients were absorbable, which ingredients didn’t help at all and which ingredients were backed by science and patents.
While the previous years were beset by tussles over questions of borrowed science, a new era of proprietary branded ingredients began.
Special processing methods were developed that ushered in a whole range of proprietary ingredients, mixtures, and compositions that were unique and protected by composition, use, or process patents.
Ingredient manufacturers developed entire portfolios of branded ingredients backed by published research.
Finished product companies were, and today are, able to take advantage of licensing agreements and distribution arrangements that allow them to feature flagship branded ingredients, in many cases incorporating these ingredients in trademark-protected formulations.
Partly spurred on by increasing FDA pressure for clinical research, and partly as a result of a growing realization of the limitations of test-tube data and experimental studies, ingredient makers have focused more on small, targeted human studies.
Not only has the type of research changed, so has the whole nature of what products are developed.
For example, there is not as much a focus on high-potency single ingredients that ordinarily help make up a complex that would be found in nature. So the carotenoid spectrum is more broadly incorporated in formulations today and, when individual carotenoids are utilized, it is more often naturally occurring or included at levels found in the source material (e.g., astaxanthin from krill). The same goes for alpha tocopherol from vitamin E, where there is more interest today in the whole family of tocopherols and tocotrienols. Some of these changes have been driven by questions that have come up in research; some have come from advances in nutritional and botanical science.
So to sum up, while the bars to entry for branded ingredients and unique formulations are, in some ways, much higher than in years past, the opportunities for manufacturers are that much greater since science, patents, and trademarks allow makers and marketers to truly stake a claim for their ingredients, providing avenues for better quality and higher consumer confidence in the products on store shelves today.