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Standardization of the ‘blessing seed’

Over the past several decades the healing benefits of black seed (Nigella sativa) have become a significant focus in the world of medicine; more specifically, the oil of these seeds has become the primary focus. To sort through the murky environment of black seed oil (BSO), we need to take a closer look at the current research into what makes this BSO effective and what to look for when purchasing a BSO ingredient.

For analogy purposes, the game show “To Tell the Truth” comes to mind. A person of some notoriety and two impostors try to fool celebrity panelists into choosing one of the impostors instead of the real person. Each celebrity has some time to question the three contestants; while the fakes can lie, the real person has “to tell the truth” about themselves. After every celebrity has had time to question them, they guess who the real person is, and each wrong guess earns the trio cash to split among themselves.

The reference of “To Tell the Truth” is used due to the number of BSO ingredients available in the marketplace that do not have the clinical research “to tell the truth” leaving many people guessing what a valid source of BSO is.

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Sustainability challenges in the supply chain

Sustainability from a natural products corporation comes from many operations; however, the department that will be tasked in implement the policy, whatever that form may be, will be supply chain. Therefore, the supply chain professional running the program will have to wear many hats in order to accomplish this task.

From a supply chain standpoint, the initial reaction to implementing a sustainability program would be the impact on cost. Other impacts could be potential changes to the supply bases, quality, availability and continuity of supply. In addition, the company will need a coherent sustainability mission statement to implement the program.

Supply chain professionals have multiple touch points in any organization; they need to be able to engage and influence other departments in an effective manner. It is critical to understand the company mission statement regarding sustainability, and there is alignment across the organization from marketing, finance, production and logistics. In some cases, supply chain may have to help sell the idea.

Sustainability and corporate social responsibility

Sustainability must first be adequately defined before a program can be implemented. The United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development in 2008 defined sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

From here, we can tether sustainability to corporate social responsibility (CSR). CSR is not as universally adopted. It could a different concept for each organization despite the increasing pressure for the need to do so.

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Certification Fatigue: Is it really a thing?

Yes, it is. No question. Just ask a few of your customers. It seems every month a new certification seal pops up. For the end consumer, excessive certifications are an alphabet soup of buttons and badges that make their eyes glaze over after a brief encounter with a digital or print ad, sell sheet or scrolling web page.

Do Certifications Add Value to Brands?

In moderation, certifications can add credibility and legitimacy to a brand offering. They also add an implied third-party endorsement, which matters greatly to end consumers. In the past decade, in particular, as transparency has become of greater concern for consumers and customers, certifications add a note of authenticity to a brand by assuring buyers the brand made the effort to validate for certain standards.

How Do Claims Differ from Certifications?

For many customers and consumers, the line between claims and certifications is increasingly blurred, mostly because marketers have invented their own terms and seals and wording that make it difficult to discern what is a legitimate third-party certification and what is “marketing speak.” Common claims include “no artificial ingredients,” “all natural,” “no high fructose corn syrup” or “clean label,” to name a handful. These can be marketing statements or claims, and while FDA, FTC or a class action lawyer might take offense to how a brand makes these assertions, most of them go unchecked without an agency enforcing compliance. Certifications are more formalized third-party endorsements with strict standards for compliance, such as USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified or NSF certified. 

In terms of the role they play, claims primarily serve to address potential consumer concerns, dietary restrictions, or attract those on an elective diet regimen like ketogenic, paleo, vegan, gluten-free, etc.  Certifications serve to reinforce product or ingredient quality, and also to build trust and equity in the brand name.

What Causes Certification Fatigue?

Increasingly, effective marketing outreach has revealed (often the hard way) that when it comes to brand education, sometimes less is more. A target audience member only has so much time and attention to devote to a brand message, and the more information crammed into each point of contact, the more likely consumers or customers are to tune out or move on or delete or click “close.” Brands that “over share” are often not the ones that successfully engage consumers because, frankly, they are throwing way too much at an audience that likely doesn’t care.  Smart marketers are selective in what they share and where they share it. This applies to certifications as well. I would argue a stream of 10 miniscule certification seals or logos is dramatically less effective than three or four key certifications that mean something to the customers or consumers who buy or consider buying that brand.

In addition, detailed certifications don’t belong on the principal display panel (PDP) of a label. They belong on the brand’s website or literature where they can be showcased and explained. Because, let’s be honest, the majority of consumers likely can’t define what non-GMO means, and non-GMO and USDA Organic are commonly confused even though they are not at all the same thing. If all the money spent educating consumers about these big time certifications is producing lackluster results, it should cause concern about the other dozen claims and seals plastered all over every piece of marketing communication.

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Unravelling the gut-brain axis

Undoubtedly, one of the greatest scientific advancements in our lifetime, along with the sequencing of the human genome, is the profiling of the microbiome. Most people have heard the estimate that we are only “10% human” or that foreign bacterial cells outnumber human cells 10 to 1. New data shows that number is closer to a 50:50 ratio. More accurately, we are 50% human.1 The microbiota exhibits all the characteristics and metabolic activity to be officially categorized as its own “organ.”2   

However, our foreign bacteria have 100 times the genetic diversity and potential of our own DNA. This means they have 100 times the genes that can be flipped on and off through various stimuli, like interaction with each other, metabolites, toxins, exercise and diet.3 The genetic output of our microbial population includes the production of proteins that may signal our own genes to act, either turning them on or off.4,5 

In fact, our microbiota produce nearly 30 different kinds of neurotransmitters, identical to the ones we make in our brain; plus, they manufacture and mediate thousands of immune- or inflammation-modulating molecules.6,7,8,9 The far-reaching impact of our symbiotic relationship with our microbiota influences brain, heart and liver health; the development and etiology of allergic and skin diseases; metabolic efficiency; drug pharmacokinetics; and immune and digestive function.10,11 The ability to manipulate this population for our good is a major constituent of epigenetics and personized nutrition.12,13 

The gut is increasingly referred to as the “second brain.” The gut contains more than 100 to 500 million neurons, exceeding the number of neurons found in the spine.8,14,15

The brain is the manager and sorter of all the stimuli we receive from the outside world. We mainly think of this as what we hear, see and touch, but we forget about the vast amount of data processed via the gut.16 It is no wonder that we have long noticed gastrointestinal (GI) complaints associated with depression, anxiety, insomnia and many other diseases we previously thought of as solely “mental” illnesses.17,18,19 Conversely, for nearly a century, many gut diseases, like irritable bowel disease, were described as “nervous disorders.”

The two-way communication between the gut and the brain via the enteral nervous system (ENS) and the vagal nerve is called the “gut-brain” axis.20,21 Science is still elucidating the complex pathways of communication between the brain and the gut that include hormone signaling, microbial metabolite production and immune system activation.22,23 We already know that enteric nervous system hormones and peptides can make their way into circulation, and more importantly, cross the blood–brain barrier acting synergistically to regulate mood, cognitive function, stress, appetite and sleep.24,25

The communication via the gut-brain axis goes both ways. This is especially evident when stress is introduced. Even short-term exposure to stress can impact the microbiota community profile and lead to dysbiosis by altering the relative proportions of the main microbiota families. This dysbiosis in turn influences stress responsiveness, anxiety-like behavior and the set point for activation of the HPA stress axis.

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Considerations for success in the women’s health market

As with any other population, women have unique nutritional needs, life challenges and preferences that influence their purchasing decisions. Clinical studies have indicated a plethora of promising women’s health ingredients to help address nutrient shortfalls and enhance well-being at all life stages. In fact, Cornell University research identified a correlation between increased choline intake in pregnant women and higher information processing speeds in their infants (FASEB J. 2018;32:2172-2180). Additional studies are examining the potential brain health benefits of maternal choline intake as the children reach older ages, from 7 to 15. The importance of maternal health and proper fetal nutrition is well established, but research supporting the long-term effects gleaned secondhand, so to speak, is a game-changer.

A few key considerations can assist product developers looking to reach female consumers.

Identify the target audience

Although a given when creating any product, the women’s health category isn’t always clear-cut. Women from their teens to their 40s may be taking prenatal supplements. Market trends indicate some consumers are looking for proactive nutritional support decades earlier than women of the past, so Millennials may be seeking joint health products with different motivation than their parents, and likewise, their grandparents. The same goes for beauty-from-within products and more.

Create the right formulation

Dozens of ingredients are popular in women’s health products, including omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, protein/collagen, botanicals, carotenoids, probiotics, enzymes, yeasts, collagen and other nutrients. Drawing from the Ayurvedic practice of addressing various aspects of well-being, combination formulas are increasingly popular. Some women may follow a plant-based diet, and therefore require a vegetarian or vegan product. For others, organic positioning is a selling point.

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Recent research on brain-boosting nutrients

Everyone wants the best brain they can have. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defined a healthy brain as “one that can perform all the mental processes that are collectively known as cognition, including the ability to learn new things, intuition, judgment, language and remembering.” Several dietary ingredients have recently shown promise for safely improving human cognition.

In these studies, “significantly improved” indicates superior benefit, with a probability (“P value”) of at least 95 percent that the finding is real. Animal studies are not covered because they do not consistently predict human benefit.

The brain makes and consumes huge amounts of energy, for which it needs supplies of nutrients out of proportion to its small size (Frontiers Mol Neurosci 2018 Jun 22;11:216. DOI: 10.3389/fnmol.2018.00216.) But the current food supply falls far short of being sufficient for brain (or body) health. Based on ongoing findings from large CDC surveys, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans listed magnesium; vitamins C, D and E; and choline among “underconsumed nutrients.” All are vital to cognitive performance.

This gives consumers a good reason to take a good multivitamin. Analyses of the national U.S. population survey data established taking a daily multi vitamin-mineral helps offset the nutrient gap in the U.S. food supply (Nutrients. 2017 Dec 22;10(1). pii: E4. DOI: 10.3390/nu10010004 and Nutrients. 2017 Aug 9;9(8). pii: E849. DOI: 10.3390/nu9080849).

Taking a multivitamin formulated with the most proven ingredients provides a steady supply of the nutrient “nuts and bolts” needed by the enzymes that make cognition possible.

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Protein powders for an expanding consumer base

Protein powder use among natural consumers is on the rise, according to SPINS data. While the US$892.5 million protein powders segment grew 4.2% over the past year (the 52 weeks ending April 21, 2019), sales in the natural channel of retail grocers grew 8.8% to $156.1 million, outpacing growth for the greater cross-channel segment. Tracking the sales of naturally positioned products across multiple retail channels shows that natural items also outpaced the greater segment’s growth, up 13.2% to $350.5 million as consumers increasingly seek clean, high-quality protein without artificial ingredients in a broader range of outlets. Even within the conventional marketplace, demand for natural protein powders is significantly increasing. Overall dollar sales of protein powders in the mainstream conventional multi-outlet channel was up 3.2% to $724.2 million, with sales for naturally positioned products climbing at a much faster rate of 17.2% to $196.0 million, while more conventionally positioned products remained relatively stable with a slight 1.1% decline to $528.1 million.

Natural Attributes and Ingredients Fuel Growth

As further evidence of consumer interest in clean-label protein powder products, label claims such as grass-fed, non-GMO, and organic showed significant growth over the past year, as well. Sales for protein powders labeled as grass-fed grew 92.3% to $21.6 million as grass-fed becomes a benchmark for quality and an important production standard regarding animal welfare to the natural consumer. Protein powders labeled as non-GMO grew 9.8%to $235.6 million, while products without labeled non-GMO ingredients were in decline. Certified-organic protein powders grew 33.7% to $136.9 million, and protein powders with any amount of organic content grew 8.2% to $220.7 million. While use of artificial sweeteners in protein powders is still prevalent in conventionally positioned products, sales for products in the segment that contain artificial sweeteners showed decline, dropping 14.3% to $255.6 million. Protein powders sweetened with stevia (a natural, zero-calorie, herbal sweetener) or alternative sweetener blends containing stevia grew 6.4% to $223.2 million.

Cultural Influences Bring New Consumers to the Segment

In addition to the natural consumer, other shopper groups are jumping at the chance to use protein powder to meet nutritional needs. “Health and wellness is quickly becoming health and fitness, led by a newer wellness community culture that recognizes the importance of exercise and fitness to overall health,” said Scott Dicker, client support lead and subject matter expert in sports nutrition at SPINS. “This movement drives dedicated fitness enthusiasts and weekend warriors alike to fuel efficiently for exercise and looks to protein for workout recovery and to reduce muscle soreness.”

Popular exercise trends such as CrossFit often promote dietary strategies as part of a lifestyle, bridging the gap between wellness and fitness verticals, and increasing demand for products that support specific ways of eating, such as paleo- or keto-positioned products. SPINS data show that paleo-positioned protein powders soared 55.7%, to $34.1 million, as the popularity of paleo and related ways of eating remain strong.

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All natural products imports from China face higher tariffs

An already tariff-weary natural products industry will face elevated tariffs on nearly all ingredients and materials sourced from China, if a fresh 10% increase on the remaining US$300 billion in imports from China goes into effect Sept. 1, as promised by President Trump in his ongoing trade war.

The Trump Administration proposed the tariffs earlier this summer and held public hearings in June. However, the tariffs were put on hold after Trump and China President Xi Jinping met at the G20 Economic Summit in Japan in late June.

The tariffs would include the remaining imports from China not on the earlier three lists of punitive tariffs, some of which have elevated from an initial supplemental 10% to 25%.

The challenges for industry include how to deal with the elevated costs and possibly find non-Chinese sources of ingredients, whether another country or creating domestic supply. However, finding new sources can be nearly impossible for some ingredients, especially agricultural items that grow in certain climates and conditions. Further, it can take years to develop domestic sources of materials and ingredients that were almost exclusively imported for years and decades.

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Astaxanthin and healthy aging

The aging process is accompanied by numerous health challenges, which will vary from individual to individual due to several factors, including genetics, lifestyle choices, environmental factors and life events. Premature aging is also closely linked to oxidative stress.1

Reactive oxygen species (ROS), otherwise known as pro-oxidants, are formed as by-products of normal metabolism in our body when food is converted into energy. Immune cells fighting bacterial infections also release ROS. High levels of ROS can initiate harmful alterations in key biomolecules, such as lipids, proteins and DNA in a condition called oxidative stress.2

Aging is typically accompanied by a reduction in cellular energy production and increased free radical production. This leads to an overloading of defense systems and oxidative damage. From a biological point of view, aging involves the accumulation of oxidative damage in cells and tissues. Younger people are naturally better protected from free radicals and other ROS through balanced activity of the mitochondria, efficient antioxidant and DNA repair systems, and active protein degradation machinery. Aging, on the other hand, is generally accompanied by mitochondrial dysfunction leading to increased free radical production that, in turn, leads to an overloading of the defense systems and oxidative damage of cellular components.1

The study of oxygen-free radicals has been going on for many years, but within the last two decades, the research into their effects on human health has really taken off. The evidence shows that oxidative stress plays a significant role in the aging process, as well as the development of chronic and degenerative illness. This, in turn, has spurred tremendous interest in finding out more about the effects of antioxidants in neutralizing free radicals, and the health support benefits they provide in the human body.

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Protein powder products: Differentiating in a crowded market

Protein is booming, and powders have played a huge role in delivering efficacious amounts of protein to sports nutrition consumers looking to build and maintain muscle mass. Tubs of ready-to-mix (RTM) protein powders have long been a visual mainstay of many sports nutrition stores, aisles and sections, and powdered ingredients are also used to fill sports supplement capsules and provide muscle to bars and beverages. However, the protein powder market is crowded, and the consumer shift to wanting higher protein intake via foods and beverages instead of supplements only adds to the challenges of making a protein powder-based product stand out and be successful.

For companies playing in the RTM protein powder space, differentiation requires innovative flavors and ingredient combinations, as well as enhanced bioavailability and responsible sourcing. The protein ready-to-drink (RTD) market is seeing increasing numbers of clear or water beverages with high protein content, in addition to new hot protein RTD products. The food segment has exploded with high-protein offerings as companies have found ways to infuse protein into an array of everyday foods and snacks. In every corner of the protein powder market, new technologies are supporting innovation.

The size and future of the protein supplement market varies depending on which market expert you ask, but Allied Market Research and Marqual IT Solutions Pvt. Ltd (KBV Research) both predicted around 7.5% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) over the next five or six years and a resultant market of US$8.7 billion. Zion Market Research calculated the CAGR at 5.7% and a size of $3.6 billion heading into 2024. Either way, the segment is expected to enjoy solid growth worldwide.

On the animal side, whey protein is set to grow 7.6% to $12.5 billion by 2024, according to Statista. On the plant side, the global pea protein market was about $101.7 million (all uses) in 2018 and should grow at a 17.4% CAGR through 2025, reported Grand View Research. Persistence Market Research reported organic pea protein should grow at an even more robust 7.2% CAGR through 2027.

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