This year, ingredients supplier Sabinsa Corp. (East Windsor, NJ), is celebrating 30 years in the natural products industry. Founded in 1988, Sabinsa began as a supplier of curcumin and other Ayurvedic ingredients, but has expanded its portfolio to include protein ingredients, probiotic ingredients, and more.
Shaheen Majeed, president, Sabinsa worldwide, spoke to Nutritional Outlook about how Sabinsa has navigated 30 years of regulatory change, and how the company plans to continue to deliver science-backed, innovative ingredients for a growing range of health categories.
Nutritional Outlook: Congratulations on Sabinsa’s 30th anniversary! What a milestone and achievement. How does it feel having reached 30 years of business in the natural products industry?
Shaheen Majeed: Thank you. It’s an exciting and gratifying milestone. Though we’re not a young start-up anymore, we’re still agile, nimble, responsive to our customers, and treat each day as a new opportunity. We have seen a lot over the past 30 years in this industry. We have gained, as much as we have given, and we’ll continue to uphold the principles of ingredient quality and integrity, the best way we know how, through research.
The industry looked very different back when your father founded Sabinsa Corp. in 1988. What are the most significant ways in which you and he have seen the industry evolve over that time, for better or for worse?
Sabinsa was founded pre-Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), so the industry looked quite different. Branded ingredients were less common and relatively generic. Most were from the European and American Eclectic herbal modalities, with some from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). A few staple herbs from India, like ginger, were commonly used, but many of the herbs from India that are ubiquitous today didn’t make an appearance in the industry until Sabinsa introduced them. Over that first decade, branded ingredients became more common, and there was more innovation beginning to happen. That was also when we began to see patent infringement, which we battle to this day.
Over the years, we’ve observed quite a few trends ebb and flow. For example, as industry growth exploded post-DSHEA, investment dollars flooding into the industry caused some profound shifts in business practices. One example is when companies moved away from branded ingredients to cheap generics because they had to show fast returns on investment, so quality suffered. There was even an educational session at Expo West about 20 years back with industry leaders like Sabinsa and Loren Israelsen speaking out against the practice of buying ingredients by price alone and blindly trusting the accompanying certificates of analysis on identity or quality. We predicted such practices would be destructive to industry reputation and sustainability. When consumers buy a product that doesn’t work, they seldom think, “That brand used low quality ingredients,” they think, “Herbs don’t work.” Eventually, much of the industry turned back to branded, higher-quality ingredients.
Sabinsa was one of a very small group of ingredient companies investing in research. There were more companies “borrowing” other companies’ science, and Dr. Majeed can still give you specific examples of the most egregious offenders from 25 years ago. Fortunately, today there is a lot more investment in science by the most substantial branded ingredient companies. It’s an investment that pays off, as is evidenced by the success of Sabinsa’s Curcumin C3 Complex, which has more published clinical studies on it than any other curcumin ingredient, and the success such validation deserves.
There are two pivotal points in Sabinsa’s history, which are not often talked about, yet we still reflect on them internally to help our employees and customers understand our most basic principles. One was the position Dr. Majeed took on ephedra prior to that herb’s ban by FDA. The flood of requests Dr. Majeed received to supply this item was enormous, and surely there was money to be made. However, being a trained industrial pharmacist, he understood early on that FDA would not tolerate such an ingredient given the way it was being formulated and marketed. What we saw was the proverbial “One is good, 10 is better” dosage approach. This type of abuse would only hurt consumers. We declined to ever sell ephedra, even with the fallout we had from customers that demanded it, because it was the right decision.
Secondly, early on we took a stance to standardize our Ayurvedic extracts based on identified actives that the scientific community could study. While at first this was not welcomed, over time as the research from our side proved various health benefits, customers came to appreciate this.
What are the most significant ways in which the company has seen the Ayurvedic ingredients industry especially change over the years?
Thirty years ago there was limited awareness of Ayurveda and its’ history as one of the world’s oldest medical systems, so there wasn’t an inherent credibility to ingredients, or finished products. There were a few brands selling Ayurvedic products that tried to educate consumers, including explaining Doshas and other personalized medicine aspects of the modality. It was too complicated a brand story, and until those brands switched tactics to condition-specific formulas and marketing, success was limited. Sabinsa always drew from ancient knowledge, then confirmed and expanded upon what was known using modern research. As general awareness of Ayurveda grew, being based in that tradition required less explanation. Although there are other ingredient suppliers today selling Ayurvedic herbs, Sabinsa is far and away the most science-based—no other Indian companies makes the kind of commitment to R&D that we do on a global scale.