Special edition: Botanicals

Vertical integration provides bulwark against adulteration, proponents say

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags: Wine

In an age where the dietary supplement industry is wrestling with adulteration issues in an increasingly open way, vertical integration can be a key component of a botanical ingredient supplier’s value proposition, experts say.

Botanical ingredient supply has for years been dominated by a system of aggregators selling to brokers who in turn sell on to distributors.  While it is perfectly possible to source quality ingredients in this way, the large number of moving parts and the wide variety of players in this system, some of whom might have divergent interests, mean substandard material can more easily slip through.  This can include lower quality botanicals, harvested at off peak times or from areas that have suffered through poor growing seasons.  Or it can even range up to intentionally adulterated material.  These are botanicals spiked with cheaper plant materials or even some straight out synthetically produced marker chemicals that can fool some common chemical tests, and provide spikes on a chromatograph that closely mimic what the real thing ought to look like.

One way to deal with these threats is to have a system of checks and balances in place, and agreements with suppliers on what tests will be run.  This system would further extend to audits of suppliers down the chain to ensure that testing and sourcing practices are being followed through on an ongoing basis. Indeed, one expert believes that the gold standard of reliable supply is to have agreements in place in which materials to be used in dietary supplements tested in this country are tested within the borders of the U.S.

In the botanical supply side of the industry, where quality standards are all over the place, the way that a company can be assured they are getting a clean ingredients is to require full U.S. based, batch-specific testing that covers potency, identity, pesticides and other key categories. If a supplier cant give you that, then there can be no assurance that youre getting what you and your customers are paying for,” ​Cal Bewicke, president of Redwood City, CA-based botanical ingredient supplier Ethical Naturals told NutraIngredients-USA.

Another way to deal with this issue to source botanicals from vertically integrated companies.  While the quality of material in this scenario rests on the ethics of the company itself, there are fewer ducks to keep in a row, and the auditing process would presumably be easier.

The house that grapes built

One company that was born almost accidentally as a vertically integrated botanical ingredient is Polyphenolics, which is a division of the wine giant Constellation Brands.  Polyphenolics was formed as a division shortly after the parent company moved into California wine production after decades of growth as a seller of wines made in the eastern U.S. (the company also has an extensive list of beer and spirits brands).

The health benefits of grape seed extracts was born out of research done into the mysteries of the French Paradox, one of the big early stories about the health benefits of botanical ingredients, said Dr. James Kennedy, PhD president of Polyphenolics. ‘The French Paradox,’ a term that is now somewhat passé, was a catch-all title for epidemiological questions surrounding the perception of high levels of fat in the diet of French people coupled with their unexpectedly low levels of cardiovascular disease, which was attributed to their drinking of red wine.

It really goes back to 1990-1991, when Morley Safer did his story on 60 Minutes about The French Paradox. Thats when people in this country really started to associate wine drinking with health. At Constellation Brands they really started thinking about what it is within wine that is beneficial to your health,​ Kennedy said.

Kennedy said scientists on staff like the recently retired Dr. Anil Shrikhande, PhD, delved into the constituents of the wine grape and discovered the health properties contained within extracts of the grape seed.  Along the way the company patented several different varieties of grape seed extracts, all with different molecular profiles and targeted toward specific conditions.  These include MegaNatural BP and MegaNatural Gold.

Peanut skin adulteration

Peanut skins © iStock vavlt
Image © iStock/vavlt

But with the founding of this ingredient category, room was also unwittingly created for economic adulteration.  Grape seed extracts are not among the more expensive botanical ingredients, but peanut skin extracts are cheaper still, and have been showing up as an adulterant in ostensible grape seed extracts.  One study in 2014 that tested 21 commercially available grape seed extracts found six that seemed to be comprised almost entirely of peanut skin extract​ and a number of others that were only pallid imitations of the real thing, with low levels of the active components.

Kennedy said that in Polyphenolics’ case, the company has a highly robust system of supply chain controls based on the management of grapes for wine and grape juice production.  Obviously, the provenance of the grapes is THE key quality parameter for premium wine and juice varieties.

“We have done a lot of work with these so-called waste streams to understand the chemistry of those streams, and all the co-products that come out of the grape pomace,” Kennedy said.

We are very particular about the seed that we use, and after much work have come to the conclusion that it is the unfermented seed that makes the best grape seed extracts.  Having that vertical integration  is important for us from an authenticity standpoint.  There is a lot of opportunity to adulterate grape seed extracts, and you have to be a pretty well trained chemist to spot it,​ he said.

Contracting directly with farmers

sabinsa turmeric
Sabinsa contracts directly with thousands of family farmers in India. NutraIngredients-USA photo.

Sabinsa is another botanical ingredient supplier that is vertically integrated in many of the ingredients it its portfolio.  The company contracts directly with thousands of family farmers in various parts of India and elsewhere. The company manages that production to grow turmeric, coleus and other crops in a seed-to-extract manner with its processing facilities in and around Bangalore and Hyderabad in southern India.  For marketing director Shaheen Majeed, being vertically integrated is a competitive advantage.

Having control from farm to finished ingredient, for us, means that we know exactly what we’re getting in raw materials. We know they were grown using good agricultural practices, which includes minimizing heavy metals in the soil and chemicals used. We know that fair trade practices are in place, so the people growing them are not exploited to the detriment of the farmers and the communities.  We also know that the harvesting and subsequent handling preserves the active constituents in the herbs, so they will be effective when people use them,”​ he said.

Controlling costs, ensuring supply

Majeed said vertical integration can help control costs while at the same time ensuring supply.  The nature of the botanical market for ingredients to suddenly get ‘hot’ with the release of positive press reports, means that some suppliers can jump into that breach with material of dubious quality.

“It does have an advantage in controlling costs when demand exceeds supply, but more importantly it means we have access to enough supply to meet our customers’ needs. Ideally, you want to achieve both, be transparent and control costs. As our industry evolves, more and more audits will take place. Putting in systems to “be audit ready” anytime, anywhere, is proving, at least for Sabinsa, a worthwhile strategy,”​ he said.

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