Understanding Proprietary Blends in Supplements and How They Can be Misleading

The term “proprietary blend” is a common ingredient listed on dietary supplement bottles, but what does it actually mean, and should you trust it?

As a consumer, it’s challenging and time-consuming to identify trustworthy and effective dietary supplements. The array of choices is overwhelming. Unfortunately, many companies are more focused on selling their products than providing quality ingredients in meaningful amounts, and education around how the herbs impact the body to reach the desired benefit.

Oftentimes, to increase sales and profit margins, some companies create formulas containing “proprietary blends” to make their products sound unique and more interesting. Some have catchy names and may even be trademarked, but they all have one thing in common: a list of various ingredients and botanicals, typically with only the barest of information about each item, and no notation of the actual amount included in the formula.

Proprietary blends; however, are legal and allowed by the FDA, and the ingredients in these blends should be listed in descending order, by weight. The total combined weight of the blend, typically measured in milligrams, is also required to be shown on the label. Some companies may even feel that the specific and exact amount of each botanical in a blend is one of the key differentiating factors that a company may have.

Unethical reasons that companies market “proprietary blends” in their products

While a company may include proprietary blends in an attempt to protect their formula from competitors, does that seeming benefit for the company outweigh the costs, issues, and questions for the consumer? Do you know you’re getting sufficient therapeutic doses of the key herbs you hope to derive the benefit from? Is the appropriate part of the herb being used, and are the key active ingredients present in high enough quantities? These are questions a quality herbal supplement company will be eager to answer.

Additionally, there are unethical reasons why some might want to include vague proprietary blends in their products:

  1. Hide inadequate amounts or doses of ingredients. A blend may contain very low amounts (“fairy dust”) of active ingredients, frequently in quantities too low to be effective; still, the company can include those ingredients on their label. For example, in a proprietary blend with 10 ingredients and a total weight of 500 mg, there is 50 mg of each ingredient on average, oftentimes an inadequate dose of the botanical or low quantities of the key active ingredients.
  2. Boost margins. By providing higher doses of less expensive ingredients and “fillers” while minimizing the doses of more expensive and typically more desirable ingredients, a company is also able to boost their margins. On a product’s ingredient facts label, herbs are listed by weight in descending order – i.e. from largest amount to smallest. In a proprietary blend with 10 ingredients and a total weight of 500 mg, it’s possible that the first ingredient is 400 mg, leaving only 100 mg to split among the 9 remaining ingredients. Interestingly, the company is still able to prominently list these expensive ingredients in their marketing as a “key active ingredient.”
  3. Allow the formula to change. By not listing each individual ingredient or quantity, they are not committing to any specific formula, providing the flexibility to change the dose or ingredient combination.
  4. Claim to have a differentiated product. Using trendy names or phrases for proprietary blends can make the product seem different from other similar products.
  5. Increase the perceived value of the product. The words “proprietary blend” may imply that the formula is special or unique, frequently resulting in a higher price point. In reality, bundling ingredients into one larger, seemingly impressive blend provides little useful information.

How to decipher the good herbal supplements from the bad

Consumers today want honesty and transparency. If a product is supposed to be beneficial for you, the company selling it should want to give you every detail, right? Learn to see through deceptive advertising to weed out ineffective or even dangerous products; not to mention wasting your money on a formula that does not have meaningful amounts of the active ingredients.

Here are 3 questions to ask when buying herbal supplements. It’s also a good idea to take a look at the company’s website for more information on why certain ingredients were included in a formula. We’re sharing this information in “Our Science,” and are always happy to answer additional questions.

Protect yourself by learning to read supplement labels carefully. If you have questions, reach out to the company directly. Most reputable companies should educate you, answer your questions and explain the rationale and research behind their formulas.

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