Labs who what where how

Ingredients: Investigating the What, Where, and How

Seeking out and learning about novel foods and ingredients is one of the fun and interesting aspects of being a formulator. The supplement industry is bursting with new extracts, unique foods and nutraceuticals, and the global economy now provides access to plants previously unknown outside a specific region. As I investigate novel ingredients, sometimes I feel like a detective looking for answers: the what, the where, and the how behind the ingredient.

Suppliers of raw material for supplements are very good marketers. They send email blasts, advertise heavily in online supplement newsfeeds, and try to create hype around their novel ingredients. For me, the most important questions start with is, what is it? Is this an ingredient that has been synthesized, or is this a food?

Raw material suppliers are also very good at elaborating on the features and benefits of their products. I remember once looking at an extract from a plant, and the company had listed about 12 health benefits: improves memory, supports the immune system, good for the heart, can lower cholesterol, reduces lactic acid, builds muscle, fights inflammation, improves circulation, recommended for weight management, high fiber content, provides a source of natural energy, supports a healthy digestive system. My response to this was, does it do dishes too?

Where does this ingredient come from? Where is it processed? I want to know about sustainability, harvesting procedures, whether or not solvents are used, heavy metal content, and levels of pesticide residue. Believe it or not, there are some foods that BioStar won’t buy from US sources. A food like chia, for instance, has a higher nutritional profile when grown in Bolivia or Ecuador than when grown in the US. This is in part because the soils in these smaller countries have not been subjected to monoculture farming and chemical fertilizers.

The China Syndrome
Most supplement and feed companies do not publish the country of origin of each of their ingredients. One reason is that they’re not required to by law, and a second factor is the consumer backlash against ingredients from China.

The sobering facts are that China has captured 90 percent of the world’s market for ascorbic acid, 70 percent of the world’s penicillin, 50 percent of the world’s aspirin, and 35 percent of its acetaminophen, as well as the bulk of the vitamins A, B12, and E. Several leading Western vitamin manufacturers are now operating in China, including BASF, DSM, and Lonza.

In 2010, the EU tested various rice from around the world. The lowest concentrations of arsenic in rice were found in samples from China, and the highest were from Bangladesh. Of course this fact does not mitigate concerns about countless other ingredients in vitamins, nutraceuticals, synthetic nutrients, and foods that are produced in China, and it is critically important to my job as a formulator to research where every ingredient we purchase comes from.

According to the CDC, there were 18,211 food-borne outbreaks in the US from 1998 to 2014, causing 358,391 illnesses. The states with the highest number of outbreaks were big food producing states: California (2305 outbreaks), Florida (2382), Illinois (1166), and Ohio (1287). This is where digging deep into the sources of an ingredient becomes so important. BioStar does purchase a few raw materials from China, all of them USDA-certified organic and from small producers. Our standards are high, and we will continue to keep them that way.

We publish County of Origin information for every ingredient on each product page of our website.

I rarely run out of questions when I am talking to a supplier of raw materials.  How was this food grown? How was it harvested? How was it processed? How has it been stored? And always, I ask myself: Will this cause stress to the GI tract, or decrease stress on the GI tract?

I have found over the years that smaller companies tend to be more forthcoming, and will often leave no stone unturned to answer a question, while the larger more corporate entities are more interested in selling their raw material than providing all the information I seek.

A good example is my experience in searching for an ashwaganda supplier. Often ashwaganda extracts use solvents such as ethanol, methanol, chloroform, ethyl acetate, and acetone—sometimes a mixture of several of these chemical compounds. I was looking for a “greener” extraction method I had read about in a published research study on ultrasound for extraction with water. I started contacting a number of different companies to find out about the solvent used in their ashwaganda extracts. One company rep told me flatly, “No one has ever asked me that.” Another said, “You don’t have to be concerned with solvents…we have the best price for ashwaganda on the market!

I did end up finding what I was looking for: a small company in India that took 14 years to develop an ultrasound-plus-water method of extraction. The added benefit of this method was a higher concentration of full-spectrum constituents of the plant, including the important withanolides. This company also owns its own farms that grow Ashwaganda, thus ensuring quality of the herb and compliance with the terms of their USDA organic certification.

Raw materials are shipped with certificates of analysis (COAs). These are the laboratory tests that not only show the nutrient content but also the presence of any heavy metals, molds, or toxic bacteria (such as salmonella, E. coli, etc). Some companies do only a minimum analysis, and we have to ask them for more lab tests before we will consider purchasing the ingredient.

I have had some friendly debates with other supplement companies who choose not to use organic ingredients because the COA doesn’t show an appreciable difference in nutrients between organic and conventionally grown (but of course a huge difference in price!) I choose organic because of the glyphosate (Roundup) issues with conventional options, the fact that the food is GMO free, and because I know that, for organic certification, the soil must be nurtured without heavy-chemical-based fertilizers. These elements are important to me, and important to our animals.

Smell, taste, consistency
With every batch of raw material that arrives on our loading dock, we check the COA first, and then we smell, taste, and compare the consistency with samples from previous batches; there can be some differences in the smell of the food from one shipment to the next. Elva, our production supervisor, has a keen nose, and alerts us immediately if something “doesn’t smell right.” Elva also has a very disciplined palate for BioStar ingredients, although she may never forgive me for the first time she had to taste the sample batch of liver powder for our canine formulas.

There can be small variances in color or taste, as in a blue-green algae (spirulina),  apples, or bananas. BioStar defines “consistency” as the feel of the material, and the evenness of quality of the ingredient from the top to the bottom of each kilo-sized container we use. Seeds like chia, sunflower and flax must be consistent in quality. We notify the supplier right away if an ingredient fails one of our smell, taste, or consistency tests, and make arrangements to ship it back.

Ingredients on the label
For me, ingredients aren’t just something we list on our labels. A lot of time and attention goes into choosing each one, and from whom we source it. Ingredients that meet our standards are critical to the health and wellbeing of horses and dogs.

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