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We are witnessing the seemingly unstoppable rise of the supplement-based approach to health and the advent of new markets for the nutraceuticals industry, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region where sales of nutraceutical products are skyrocketing1. Although the nutraceuticals market has traditionally been dominated by synthetic vitamins and ingredients, demand is rising for plant-sourced formulas.
Supply chains are becoming increasingly complex internationally and prices for plant-derived commodities such as botanical extracts and herbal vitamin preparations are in a constant state of flux. Natural ingredients are vulnerable to adulteration or substitution with cheaper synthetic compounds and identifying this can be a challenge without appropriate test methods in place.
Carbon-14 testing has long been employed by quality assurance departments for the purpose of identifying source material because it differentiates between biobased (plant, animal or microbiological) and petroleum-sourced materials. Focusing predominantly on Vitamin B preparations, this article looks at the challenges surrounding “all natural” product development, procurement and labeling and how the carbon-14 analytical technique can help tackle some of these challenges.
B Vitamins – rising demand and rising value
The vitamins and supplements market is a lucrative sector and B complexes are key players. The current global value of the vitamins market has been estimated to reach US$10 billion by 20242 and with the popularity of Vitamin B complexes continuing to strengthen, Technnavio forecasts that the ingredients market for Vitamin B complexes will grow at an annual rate of around 4% for the period 2014-20193. An estimated 45% of the American adult population takes a Vitamin B complex daily4.
Vitamin B complexes and their key ingredients are in high demand for a number of reasons. Firstly, significant changes in lifestyle and eating habits in recent decades mean the modern diet is often deficient in Vitamin B as a result of the increased consumption of processed food. Consequently, Vitamin B-enriched foods and supplements are popular. Secondly, fitness and health trends and wellness influencers have undoubtedly given the nutraceutical industry a boost. A third important driver of consumption is the frequent prescription of vitamin B pharmaceuticals for tackling a variety of ailments such as skin and cholesterol issues5. Finally, energy drinks and cosmetics, particularly sun skin care, are prominent applications that are experiencing a heyday in Asian markets such as India and China and contribute to market success of vitamin B products6.
Vitamin B comprises a group of chemically distinct vitamins that are important in the functioning of the brain and the human body. B vitamins are naturally abundant in foods such as whole grain rice, pulses, yeast, turkey and liver and are used to enrich depleted, processed grain-derived foodstuffs like white flour and certain breakfast cereals7. They are often sold as a Vitamin B complex in liquid, tablet or extract form but certain B vitamins are also isolated and taken independently – B12 is a prominent example. Naturally present in meat, B12 is required for the generation of red blood cells, cognitive function, and synthesis of DNA. It is taken in supplement form by vegans and pregnant women among others who are vulnerable to deficiency, symptoms of which include lack of energy, decreased appetite, weakness, exhaustion and in more serious cases, anemia.
Synthetic versus “natural” vitamin preparations
Isolating vitamins from foods such as fruit for supplement applications is often prohibitively expensive but sophisticated methods exist to create vitamin analogues that mimic the chemical profile of those derived from fruit and vegetable extracts. Multiple production pathways are available that employ enzymatic techniques to form biocultures resulting in nutritional yeast, which is sold as a natural product and would yield a “biobased” result when submitted for carbon-14 testing. Petrochemicals are also an attractive raw material for manufacturers as they constitute cost-effective building blocks for synthetic vitamin production. Examples of B vitamins that can be derived from or produced with petroleum include B1 (thiamine mononitrate and thiamine hydrochloride), B3 (niacin), B5 (isobutyraldehyde is used in synthesis) and pyridoxine hydrochloride, a form of vitamin B6. Vitamins manufactured solely from fossil sources yield a “% Biobased” result of 0%.
Petroleum-sourced vitamins often suffer from consumer criticism but how does the efficacy of plant-derived vitamins compare with synthetic variations? A plethora of studies have attempted to answer this question but the jury is still out on the comparative bioavailability of the two. Segments of the market vouch for the nutritional superiority and higher absorption rates of food-derived vitamin B for example9 and there is an emerging consensus that natural Vitamin E has greater absorption rates than the synthetic variety10. However, studies have also identified that the human body may be capable of absorbing synthetic vitamin C as effectively as the fruit- derived vitamin, although the complex physiological processes occurring alongside absorption are not yet fully understood11.
On a purely practical level, food and supplement manufacturers have traditionally had a predilection for synthetic vitamins. As a result, these have dominated the supplements market for decades and are abundant in fortified foods. The attractiveness of synthetic vitamins for both manufacturers and indirectly, consumers, is understandable. Firstly, they can often be industrially processed from raw materials that are inexpensive and readily available such as petroleum or coal tar, which allows manufacturers to cater to consumer demand for affordable products. As vitamins and supplements have flooded the mainstream, the price war at the lower end of the industry has become much more intense.
Secondly, with synthetic vitamins brands can offer vitamin-enriched products that contain higher doses than would be technically possible or financially feasible from plant sources. This is attractive to some shoppers. As professor of nutrition Christine Rosenbloon joked to Scientific American in a 2001 interview, “if a pill contained only natural ingredients, it would be the size of a golf ball”12.
Finally, synthetic vitamins often demonstrate greater stability and consistency in products and increased shelf life when added to fortified food, which simplifies storage and transportation. This can reduce complexity for manufacturers and therefore translate into cost savings for the consumer.
However, the tide is turning because a growing segment of consumers is prepared not only to pay a higher price for a plant-derived product but also demands guarantees that product claims such as “natural” or “no artificial ingredients” are accurate.
Carbon-14 testing applied to Vitamin B
The modern natural products marketplace can be a battleground and B vitamins manufacturers now find themselves on the front line. Final products lucratively marketed as “All Natural” that contain artificial B vitamins have been targeted in the past by successful class action lawsuits that have resulted in huge payouts by big name brands13. In 2014, Kashi had to strip cereal products of “all natural” labeling claims from products that contained hexane-processed soy ingredients, pyridoxine hydrochloride – a synthetic vitamin B6 additive, and calcium pantothenate – a form of vitamin B5 that can be produced through fermentation.
The stakes are high when quality assurance or labeling errors can lead to lawsuits and reputation damage downstream and for this reason, laboratory testing is employed to screen suppliers’ and competitors’ “natural” claims. An increasingly exotic array of vitamin products are sprouting up on the market with labels promoting “natural ingredients” and “free of artificial additives” such as artificial colours, flavours or preservatives. These claims can be tricky to validate or substantiate considering that economically motivated adulteration and misleading labeling are both commonplace in the industry. Fortunately analytical techniques like carbon-14 help resolve this challenges.
Biobased carbon testing using the carbon-14 method is not a chemical test, but an isotopic technique that identifies the origin (fossil or modern biomass) of the carbon in a material. In simple terms, the quantity of C14 measured in an accelerator mass spectrometer for a given material is compared to an internationally used reference sample of oxalic acid from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The result is reported as “% Biobased”. What this means concretely for users in the nutraceutical sector is that the report will clearly indicate if an ingredient labeled as a botanical extract powder has in fact been manufactured in whole or in part from fossil sources such as coal tar or petroleum.
While the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has never legislated unambiguously on the boundaries of “natural” labeling, it does not object to the use of the term if the product contains no artificial flavorings. The FDA defines artificial flavorings as those that are “not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof”14. Although carbon-14 testing cannot distinguish between the various sources listed above, the source (plant, animal or microbial) is a crucial aspect of natural labelling and carbon-14 testing can help manufacturers identify outliers early in product development.
The high level of expertise and multi-million dollar instruments required to perform carbon-14 analysis makes it an unrealistic choice for in-house measurements, but fortunately ISO 17025-accredited testing facilities such as Beta Analytic provide the analysis at an accessible cost. Identifying whether vitamin preparations such as vitamin B complex labeled as “100% natural” are indeed naturally sourced is therefore financially feasible for manufacturers and quality assurance departments of all sizes, including SME.
Author: Jasmine Garside, Global Operations Manager, Beta Analytic
Research: Anna Lykkeberg, Research Associate, Beta Analytic
Further information on natural products testing services can be found at www.betalabservices.com