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Jennifer Grebow is editor-in-chief of Nutritional Outlook.
Nutritional Outlook interviews experts in different areas of the blending business about today’s biggest blending challenges and how brand marketers can ensure that their projects are a success.
Few end-use customers understand the expertise required to manufacture a high-quality dietary supplement tablet, capsule, or drink mix. Still fewer understand the role that a high-quality blend plays in a final, finished product. Those who specialize in the industrial blending business, however, know that the ability to produce a high-quality product depends not only their own blending prowess and the equipment at hand but also on how well their own brand-manufacturer customers specify their own needs out the gate.
Ahead, Nutritional Outlook interviews experts in different areas of the blending business about today’s biggest blending challenges and how brand marketers can ensure that their projects are a success.
Nutritional Outlook: How are nutraceutical blends-and, particularly, powder blends-most commonly used in end-formulations these days? In supplement capsules and tablets? In drink mixes, beverages, and bars?
Vincent Tricarico, vice president of contract manufacturing for contract manufacturer NutraScience Labs (Farmingdale, NY): In our business, we see every imaginable idea come our way! We usually see blends (with proteins, energy, immune, and digestive being the most common) added to powdered formulations that are naturally flavored and sweetened. Occasionally, we’ll see them in capsules as well, but the doses tend to be small due to the limits presented by capsule sizes.
Bob McCrimlisk, vice president of operations for manufacturer and ingredients supplier Pharmachem Laboratories Inc. (Paterson, NJ): All of the above. Premix blends provide the formulator ease of use for inclusion in any type of dosage/delivery form.
Blending is not always the best way to get the best results, however. For tableting, we typically use traditional wet granulations and/or a combination of processes for best results, such as smaller tablets for better consumer compliance. We have several process technologies that we utilize depending on the job at hand.
How has it become more challenging for companies to achieve an effective-and uniform-custom blend these days given the wide variety of nutraceutical ingredients, particle sizes, viscosities, etc., being incorporated in multi-ingredient blends?
Tricarico: Consumer demands for minimally processed products have triggered a shift in how raw materials (both synthetic and “natural”) are processed. It feels as though each day we’re witnessing new advances that allow for less processing.
McCrimlisk: A common approach is premixing small micronutrients prior to inclusion in a blend. Additionally, layering or sandwiching ingredients in the blender is a common approach. And, our process technologies better ensure blend uniformity.
Ken Langhorn, technical director for mixing-equipment specialist Charles Ross & Son Company (Hauppauge, NY): We see formulations increasing in regard to the number of ingredients. The additional ingredients can be in very low percentages, so selection of the appropriate blender type is crucial in ensuring the product is uniform throughout the batch.
What are some of the most common variables/challenges that occur during blending projects?
Langhorn: For some products, the challenge can be lumps in a raw material; for others, it may be the delicate nature of some components.
McCrimlisk: One challenge is nonphysical uniformity of ingredients to be blended, which may require pre-milling or screening of certain products. Our experience, combined with our various technologies and processes, allow us to excel at this.
Tricarico: Uniformity is a big one-making sure that the desired amounts of nutrients are being delivered in each serving. Caking can also be an issue with hydroscopic materials. That said, I think one of the biggest challenges of manufacturing today continues to be getting an all-natural formula to take on flavors similar to those found in the synthetic products of yesterday. Overcoming challenges like these usually requires industry experience.
Can you describe a few novel ingredients that are becoming more popular to formulate with today, but that are especially challenging to deal with in a multi-ingredient blend?
Tricarico: Right now, turmeric is very popular. While it may be becoming less “novel” with each passing day, it can still prove tricky to manufacture with. When used in powdered formulations, the taste and color of most turmeric blends tend to be very overpowering. Similarly, some of the vegan proteins, which have become increasingly popular, can prove very challenging to flavor and sweeten.
McCrimlisk: Probiotics are very popular, but are delicate to work with and not compatible with many ingredients and excipients. Pharmachem Labs offers fully encapsulated probiotics, which alleviate many of these concerns.
What are some of the best ways to achieve a uniform blend when dealing with ingredients that are difficult to blend together?
Langhorn: It really depends on the challenge. We offer several different product lines, specifically for dry powders, for this reason. Each product line will have unique strengths and weaknesses. Selection of the appropriate blender will capitalize on the strengths to solve the problem.
McCrimlisk: Layering or sandwiching of the ingredients in the blender is helpful. Avoid over-blending, which can also lead to segregation. And, again, knowing which ingredients shouldn’t be combined without a coating, which ingredients are heat sensitive, and so on, are crucially important.
In contract manufacturing, what are the most common challenges and problems encountered when accepting incoming raw materials from ingredient suppliers? How can companies best avoid these types of problems?
McCrimlisk: The industry has advanced through the years to where now you can expect all documents and products to be supplied as agreed. Years ago, this was not always the case. In the case of drum-to-hopper the Pharmachem way, our QA/QC procedures are state of the art, so our customers have a lot of confidence when purchasing multi-ingredient formulations from us.
How well does your typical customer understand, at the start, the needs and challenges of their own blending project?
Langhorn: Most of our clients have a great understanding of their product and are familiar with some form of blending. However, they may not be familiar with all the blending options. Our goal is to make them aware of their options and potentially offer a way to improve their product, process, or efficiency.
Tricarico: It really depends. While our business tends to focus on existing brands that know their ingredients and have a solid understanding of how the expectations and realities of supplement manufacturing can differ, we also work with brands that are entirely new to industry. It’s not uncommon for those who aren’t as well versed in the industry “ins and outs” to provide longer and more challenging “grocery list” formulas that require additional experience and exceptional customer service to bring to market.
McCrimlisk: All projects as well as all customers are different and unique. This being the case, we try to overload the front end with our requirements so there is a clear mutual understanding of expectations from the start.
Why is it so important for customers (the brand marketers) to have a clear vision of what their project’s needs are and what their end goals are for the product and the process? What are the most important issues companies should think about when determining the needs of their project?
Langhorn: Typically, a customer will have made a product that meets their expectation or close to it before we can assist with recommendations. Knowing how that product was made and the ultimate goals will give us a starting point in the process of identifying the best mixer candidates.
Tricarico: The clearer the vision from the outset, the easier a project can be executed. A well-defined list of specifications, which are established and discussed up front, will almost always help manufacturers to avoid potential hurdles and unanticipated costs.
McCrimlisk: Many marketers do not have this deep understanding of how good their product can be-how, if properly put together, the consumer experience could be improved by making tablets easier to swallow, for instance.
What “hidden” (or maybe not so hidden) costs should companies factor into their projections when determining whether or not they can afford to create their dream blend?
Tricarico: One of the simplest ways to minimize the chance of “surprise” costs is to clearly and effectively communicate all of your product specifications at the start of the manufacturing process. Unanticipated costs can also result if a formulation proves more difficult to flavor, sweeten, blend, or test than originally anticipated. That said, most experienced manufacturers have gained the insights needed to recognize potential hurdles like these once a formulation has been delivered but before the manufacturing process has begun.
McCrimlisk: Many of our customers benefit from purchasing their multi-ingredient complex blends from Pharmachem rather than purchasing individual ingredients. We ship in their batch size with no partials left in the warehouse. This saves on purchasing costs, testing costs, and inventory costs, and they only purchase what they need or are using. Customers avoid having leftover balances or stubs of ingredients without a use.
What questions should brand marketers ask their contract manufacturer? Conversely, what questions should the contract manufacturer ask the brand?
Tricarico: This happens to be one of our favorite topics to discuss with brand owners. Any willingness to ask questions as a brand owner is a tremendous first step. Likewise, a good manufacturing partner should be proactive and have questions for you. While there’s no single way to go about asking questions, there are certain staples that are always worth considering. These include questions concerning the manufacturer’s history, their manufacturing capabilities, who they normally work with, details about the members of their team, and their strategy for helping clients bring products to market.
McCrimlisk: The contract manufacturer should be a partner, not a vendor. Ask for their advice on how to make the product better in the broadest sense.
When does it make more sense for a company to purchase its own machinery and perform blending in house, and when does it make more sense to outsource to a contract manufacturer? In what types of cases is it more cost-effective to do one or the other?
Langhorn: We see clients bringing projects in house when there is great concern over production timing and the need for flexibility.
McCrimlisk: Companies should concentrate on doing what they do best and on maximizing their own internal profit centers (producing tablets, capsules, food bars, etc.) and minimize cost centers. Even manufacturers that make their own tablets don’t make money on material processing; they make money on making tablets. That’s where we come in, as the front end to their successful business.
For companies looking to purchase a blender/mixer, is there such thing as a one-size-fits-all blender or blending solution?
Langhorn: No, it would need to be tailored to the process in regards to the type of agitation and the range of batch sizes.
Tricarico: Absolutely not. Almost always, you’re going to want different types of blenders (ribbon or “V”) at different sizes for different formulations.
What kind of advancements are equipment suppliers making to take blending/mixing capabilities to the next level?
Langhorn: Most of the advancement is in the form of control systems to ensure the batch process is consistent, ingredients are added in the correct quantities, and all the relevant data is accessible.
What kind of testing should companies ask to be done (or be doing) to test the quality (and reproducibility) of their blends? When is the best time to test?
Tricarico: At the very least, you want to draw a “bench” sample from a small test batch in order to approve things like flavor profile, final consistency, solubility, and any other factors that may apply. From there, a “per bottle” sample should allow for one last round of review and confirm that the qualities of the scaled-up full batch match those of the bench sample.
Other tests to consider include raw material testing (e.g., identity, potency) and finished-product testing (e.g., identity, potency, microbial levels, heavy metals). Any good manufacturing facility should be testing the blend at a number of points during the mixing process in order to ensure that the blend is meeting specifications and that the flavor profile isn’t being compromised.
After the product is done, consider speaking with your manufacturing representative in order to determine whether there are any aspects of the first production run that can be adjusted or improved upon in order to allow for changes in the lead time and efficiency of future production runs.
McCrimlisk: We have invested in our QA/QC infrastructure so significantly over the years that our partners/customers typically use our standards and methods. But, we’re open to collaborating so that we’re always in sync with theirs, even in test methods and standards for overseas testing.