June 12, 2023
I remember the time I was invited to an all-hands product development call regarding an amazing new technology. The crack team of young marketing whizzes had spent months compiling extensive market exploration research, mapping consumer needs and diagramming product idea matrices.
The culmination of this work was a groundbreaking product concept that was not only completely unique, but also met the unserved needs of millions of Americans.
The beautiful, graphically pleasing PowerPoint deck was flush with consumer surveys and expert market analysis demonstrating persuasively why the next big supplement idea was … injectable botanicals. That’s right: plants stuck right through arms, into veins. The rationale? B12 shots are a growth category. So why not a proprietary blend of herbs delivered with a 22-gauge needle for immediate action?
After I wiped up my spilled coffee, I took a deep breath and calmly explained the challenges with this well-presented concept. Injectables are always regulated as drugs, and supplements must always be swallowed (that’s by the mouth, and into the stomach, to be clear). Being solution-oriented, I listed a few alternatives that might fit the bill and would be, well … legal.
The legal alternatives
Capsule and tablet options are plentiful, ranging different sizes, shapes, compositions and release characteristics. And nothing beats a well-made capsule in terms of maximizing the benefit while minimizing unnecessary junk. A world of ingredients is available in different varieties and forms to create a unique and groundbreaking capsule supplement.
But I do love powdered drink supplements. A lot of effective ingredients and dosages can fit into a powdered drink format. They’re versatile and convenient. They are usually somewhat pleasant tasting. And startups or companies test marketing can start with a low MOQ (minimum order quantity) for jars or pouches of powder to test the market and bootstrap before committing to large order quantities.
Of course, we can’t forget everyone’s favorite candy-with-benefits: gummies. But gummies aren’t the only candy in the candy store—there’s more to the world of enjoyable supplement delivery forms than just squishy nuggets of sugar and cowhide extract. Supplements can also come in forms like chocolatey bites, sugar-free gel chews and quick-dissolve tablets, to name a few.
Truth be told, we’ve only touched the surface of what is possible in supplement delivery forms (without touching injectables, of course). Still waiting for the right opportunity are things like exploding vitamin candy, fizzy lifting energy drinks, and of course, the everlasting supplement gobstopper. (Not all of these have left the Wonka invention room—still a few kinks to be worked out.)
The opportunity opportunity
Luckily, we don’t need to wait for a fanciful, candy-filled future. Some inspiration can be found in history, notably inside a 2,140 year old Roman shipwreck, the Relitto del Pozzino, discovered off the coast of Tuscany in the 1990s. The vessel contained the first known medicine—tins of soft tablets containing zinc, iron, starch, pine resin and beeswax. The Pozzino tablets serve as a reminder that swallowable or chewable supplement dosage forms don’t necessarily need to contain a lot of sugar or artificial ingredients. For example, more plant-based, organic excipients are becoming available to replace ingredients of unspecified origin, like microcrystalline cellulose.
“Supplementified foods” has been a thing for a while, but we’ve only dipped our toes into the surface of the ocean. Within whole foods, we’ve seen calcium-fortified orange juice, algal DHA (docosahexaenoic acid-supplemented milk, and probiotic-doped prunes. And in the world of packaged foods, a number of opportunities exist for supplementing or fortifying nutrients into drinks, snacks and dairy.
Why do I consider these opportunities? Well, recall that much of the American population is at least marginally insufficient (if not deficient) in one or more nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D, B vitamins and iron. And more people are looking to food to get these nutrients. Teenagers and the elderly are two examples of vastly underserved populations in the nutrition world. Reaching sufficiency of these nutrients on a daily basis is critical for health and longevity, but a lot of people avoid taking pills until they need to.
So, opportunity abounds for supplement firms that deal with the more traditional formats to launch product forms that complement their existing product mix. Powders, bars and drinks are tried-and-true routes to expand brand reach and penetrate new market segments. Fortified coffee, teas/tisanes and chocolate are three other approaches where some supplement firms have seen success to expand their reach outside the supplement section of the store.
Tactical challenges remain
But when we replace our marketing and innovation hats with our regulatory and quality assurance (QA) cap, we start to look at “supplement treats” in a different way. The limited loading capacity, difficulty to ensure consistent dosage amount and stability issues are the recurring headaches for manufacturing supplement treats. And safety: Some of these formats taste so good that, like a great potato chip, it’s hard to eat just one. We should be careful that the dosage in our favorite candied supplements will not cause adverse events or provide more than the upper limit of nutrients if a Homer Simpson accidentally (or intentionally) eats 10 or 20 of them in a sitting.
A lot of challenges are inherent in developing combination food-supplement products—some of which are similar to those for gummies. And first, we’ve got to understand whether the product should be labeled as a food or a supplement. There are a few restrictions to be mindful of. Foods require the use of GRAS (generally recognized as safe) ingredients—which precludes many supplement ingredients, such as most old dietary ingredients or NDIs (new dietary ingredients). Foods cannot make structure-function claims for ingredients which are not essential nutrients (vitamins or minerals). And supplements require manufacturing in a supplement GMP (good manufacturing practice)-compliant facility meeting CFR 111 requirements. This is a more stringent set of standards than for food, which most food manufacturing facilities do not meet. Additional considerations may require support from legal counsel or regulatory experts.
So, be ready for a potentially long and expensive development process to win the supplement “Nailed It” contest for some of these more palatable delivery forms.
Needless to say, product development of new and exciting formats for supplements can be a little messy. But we don’t need to spill too much coffee or attempt to launch impossible products to enjoy success. Although a big blue ocean is out there, so are the metaphorical sirens and shoals that can bring about a shipwreck of a failed new product launch.
Blake Ebersole has supported the incubation, startup and growth of hundreds of firms in the supplement, food/beverage and natural products industries. A chemist by training, he understands all levels of product development, quality and compliance, and applies a 360-degree, interdisciplinary approach to developing world-class products. Follow Ebersole on Twitter at @NaturalBlake.
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