Elephant in the room: Proprietary blends provide fairy dusting camouflage

As part of Natural Products Insider’s “Elephant in the room” series on dietary supplement quality, Senior Editor Hank Schultz examines the use of proprietary blends. Once used to protect fragile IP, the practice now provides cover for the use of tiny, inefficacious dosages of ingredients.

Hank Schultz, Senior Editor

May 29, 2024

8 Min Read

At a Glance

  • Proprietary blends of dietary supplement ingredients began as a way to offer IP protection. 
  • Many such blends now include too many ingredients with no science to back them up. 
  • Such blends are either “lazy” or fraudulent, depending on your point of view. 

Proprietary blends in supplements began to provide a little intellectual property (IP) protection in an industry where there isn’t much. But in the modern marketplace, they can offer cover for poor-quality or even fraudulent formulas. 

Grouping ingredients within proprietary blends is a practice as old as the modern supplement industry itself. But while legitimate reasons inspired the idea, modern products featuring these mixtures raise many efficacy and quality questions. 

Loren Israelsen, president of the United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA), is one of the industry stakeholders who was intimately involved in the negotiations that led to the final version of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) that became law in 1994. 

Among the questions raised: how best to label the products that would henceforth be branded as dietary supplements? Existing food labels — set up to call out ingredients with established recommended daily allowances (RDAs) — didn’t fit well with many of the ingredients used in supplements, he said. 

Many manufacturers of herbal products had been making blends for years at the time of DSHEA’s passage. These companies wanted to ensure their trade secrets were protected under the new law.  

Israelsen: Use of blends helps solve IP problem 

Related:Dietary supplements and the elephant in the room: Quality

“It became clear the Supplement Facts panel would have to be modified, as dietary supplements would contain a wide range of ingredients without any nutrients required to be listed on the Nutrition Facts panel (that is used for foods), but which would contain dietary ingredients — mostly botanicals at that time — which were often sold as a formula,” Israelsen told Natural Products Insider. “Such formulas were and are considered proprietary. To declare them by ingredient and quantity was to forfeit any IP a company may have in such products.” 

“It was the botanical industry and UNPA that insisted on a provision to require declaration of the ingredients in a formula — but not the quantities. To protect this limited IP,” Israelsen explained. “Yes, there was discussion about how this could be misused, but the need for IP protection at that time was such an important issue even the opposition negotiators conceded this was a legitimate point.” 

The practice, then, began with the highest motives: Give the consumer as much information as possible without giving away the secret sauce. Keep in mind that supplement ingredients by their very nature are not as patentable as single-molecule drugs. Some IP protection is available, though it’s weak compared to the pharma sector. 

The math doesn’t check out 

Over the years, new players entering the supplement space have viewed these blends as a way to imply a powerhouse benefit while obscuring the fact that few — if any — of the ingredients in the blend are present in an efficacious dosage. 

For me, this is a basic math problem. Journalists generally aren’t noted for their math skills (which is why we’re writers, not rocket scientists), but I can at least do rudimentary division. 

Take, for instance, a real blend featured in a men’s sexual health product that has been on the market for some years. This product features a proprietary blend listed on the label at 200 milligrams (mg) with 18 herbal ingredients. Putting my paltry math skills to use, that works out to an average about 11 mg per ingredient. And that’s assuming — and it’s a giant assumption — the product contains the same quantity of each ingredient. 

Whatever modern science might say about the effects of each ingredient is essentially irrelevant. It’s likely none of these ingredients when administered in the amounts above have demonstrable health benefits for consumers. 

“No science would support that amount of an herbal ingredient except for the most powerful and potentially toxic,” such as aconite or gelsemium, Roy Upton, head of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP), said when asked about the aforementioned product formulation. 

So, if a formulator creates a blend and charges a pretty penny for it, and that blend is almost certainly without any positive health effects, what do we call that, poor quality control or just plain fraud? 

The fast-growing nootropics category is another area in which these proprietary blends seem to be popular. 

Take the 660 mg proprietary blend in a representative nootropic product, which is sold under a brand name belonging to a media personality. The blend is labeled as “Proprietary Dynamic Brain Blend.” As is common practice for these blends, no amounts are disclosed for any of the ingredients. 

This blend contains 16 ingredients, of which some are minerals and/or single molecules. That skews the math because some single-molecule ingredients common in the industry — piperine is a good example — might be effective in very small quantities, such as 5 mg doses. 

Confusing the issue even further, this product does not follow standard practice for the labeling of such blends. It appears to label the ingredients at random and fails to disclose them from the biggest dosages down to the smallest. 

That aside, the basic math works out like this: 16 goes into 660 about 41 times. The average dosage of these constituents is only 41 mg. Almost inevitably, some of these ingredients are present in the minutest of quantities. 

Makeup of blend precludes efficacious dosages 

As for the frontrunners, could any of these ingredients be in such quantities as to produce an effective dose? 

The first ingredient of this blend is listed as “Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) Whole Plant Extract 50% by UV.” Bacopa has been studied for a range of cognitive support endpoints, with dosages ranging from 100 mg/day to 500 mg/day and greater. Let’s give the formulators the benefit of the doubt and say they at least cleared the bar at the low end of that range and put in 100 mg. 

That leaves us with 560 mg to be distributed over the remaining 15 ingredients. One of those ingredients is DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), one of the omega-3s associated with brain health benefits. That’s another ingredient usually dosed at 100 mg or more. 

With 460 mg left for the remaining 14 ingredients, we’re down to about 33 mg per ingredient. This is fairy dusting territory. 

Some marketers of these blends may counter that these ingredients were chosen, and their ratios fixed, to achieve the holy grail of “synergy.”  Synergistic effects — the whole being is greater than the sum of the parts, in other words — sound alluring. But the science connected to synergistic effects is murky at best, and rarely directly supports the effects the developers claim. 

Use blends called lazy, and likened to subterfuge 

Industry consultant Blake Ebersole said proprietary blends used today can cover a multitude of sins, and he described the use of them as “typically lazy and pretentious.” 

“Got no competitive advantage? Make your ingredients a [proprietary] blend! So often, brands try to make up for the lack of real science or product research by going the easy route to create the appearance of 'intellectual property' with a [proprietary] blend,” he said. “The funny thing is anyone can copy a [proprietary] blend (and they do).” 

Formulator Gene Bruno, chief science officer at Nutraland USA, an ingredient supplier, had this to say about proprietary blends: “In the immortal worlds of W.C. Fields, if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with BS. The truth of the matter is, in the vast majority of these cases, that’s what’s happening.” 

Blends backed by actual science are another matter 

Bruno noted not all proprietary blends are “bad,” explaining that some raw material suppliers who offer branded blends have done research to demonstrate a benefit of the blend. 

“That’s real science,” he added. “The rest is just ‘marketing science.’” 

Ebersole noted many of these blends are skirting through testing loopholes. He predicted we’ll see more of them in the future as Amazon raises the testing bar — more brands will be looking to avoid itemizing ingredients by cloaking them within blends. 

Nutrition Business Journal reported $64.3 billion in 2023 supplement sales and is estimating $67.4 billion in 2024. No one can say for sure how much of those sales come from ineffective proprietary blends. Perhaps more concerning, American consumers may fail to distinguish these blends from supplements that could actually help them.  

As with other issues in the industry, it’s far easier to identify the problems than to devise solutions. But to the extent possible, industry associations should discourage the use of blends — except when a blend has a traditional history of use or is backed by research connected to a supplier’s particular mixture of ingredients.  

 

 

About the Author(s)

Hank Schultz

Senior Editor, Informa

Hank Schultz has been the senior editor of Natural Products Insider since early 2023. He can be reached at [email protected]

Prior to joining the Informa team, he was an editor at NutraIngredients-USA, a William Reed Business Media publication.

His approach to industry journalism was formed via a long career in the daily newspaper field. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in journalism and German, Hank was an editor at the Tempe Daily News in Arizona. He followed that with a long stint working at the Rocky Mountain News, a now defunct daily newspaper in Denver, where he rose to be one of the city editors. The newspaper won two Pulitzer Prizes during his time there.

The changing landscape of the newspaper industry led him to explore other career paths. He began his career in the natural products industry more than a decade ago at New Hope Natural Media, which was then part of Penton and now is an Informa brand. Hank formed friendships and partnerships within the industry that still inform his work to this day, which helps him to bring an insider’s perspective, tempered with an objective journalist’s sensibility, to his in-depth reporting.

Harkening back to his newspaper days, Hank considers the readers to be the primary stakeholders whose needs must be met. Report the news quickly, comprehensively and above all, fairly, and readership and sponsorships will follow.

In 2015, Hank was recognized by the American Herbal Products Association with a Special Award for Journalistic Excellence.

When he’s not reporting on the supplement industry, Hank enjoys many outside pursuits. Those include long distance bicycle touring, mountain climbing, sailing, kayaking and fishing. Less strenuous pastimes include travel, reading (novels and nonfiction), studying German, noodling on a harmonica, sketching and a daily dose of word puzzles in The New York Times.

Last but far from least, Hank is a lifelong fan and part owner of the Green Bay Packers.

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