Scouting out the nutrition information of several supplement products I repeatedly come across the phrase Proprietary Blend on the label.
I had only a vague idea of what a proprietary blend was, so I decided to research the facts and share my interesting findings in this article.
What does “proprietary blend” mean?
A proprietary blend is a manufacturer’s unique mixing of multiple ingredients into a single formula.
The FDA requires the use of the phrase Proprietary Blend (or something similar) to identify it on Supplement Facts labels, but allows manufacturers to keep the quantities of each ingredient in the proprietary blend secret.
Next we’ll look at how the FDA’s Proprietary Blend label requirements affect what you see when you’re looking at a supplement’s nutrition info.
The article also explores how the Proprietary Blend term is used as a loophole by manufacturers to withhold useful information from consumers.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science & medical resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.
What “Proprietary Blend” really means
When you see the term Proprietary Blend, or even a unique name like Super Mega Awesome Energy Blend, then you know the manufacturer has blended several ingredients into a unique concoction they consider their own invention.
What the FDA requires of manufacturers
Manufacturers are required by the FDA to name their multi-ingredient invention using a term like “blend”: Proprietary Blend, Kick Butt Workout Complex, Fat Burning Fire Formula…anything they want.
It just has to be labeled as some kind of “blend”, “complex”, “formula”, etc., to distinguish it as a combination of things mixed together.
The manufacturer is also required – immediately under their XYZ Blend title – to then list all of the ingredients that they put into this multi-ingredient combination.
This is meant to provide you the consumer with the information you need to decide if you’re going to buy the stuff & take it.
On the bottle’s Supplement Facts label, you’ll find all of the ingredients contained in the manufacturer’s Bootiful Beach Buns Blend directly underneath its name.
Sounds good right?
After all, since the ingredients are disclosed you should know what they’re putting in the supplement.
They’re not hiding it behind a trademarked “____ Blend” kind of name like what occurred in the olden days, when ingredients weren’t even listed (1).
However, there is a pretty big problem with this, and we the consumers are the losers because of it.
What the FDA could require, but doesn’t
For some dang reason I just can’t figure out, the FDA doesn’t require the manufacturers to disclose how much of each ingredient is in that proprietary blend of theirs.
So in the example above of our ___ Proprietary Blend, we’ll see on the label that it contains 6 different ingredients, because the manufacturer has to provide the names of the individual ingredients.
Yet we’ll have no idea how much of each one of those 6 ingredients is contained in that blend.
This leads to a gaping hole where important information for us consumers should be instead.
I believe it’s our right & responsibility to know what we’re putting into our bodies.
That’s why I can’t get why the FDA doesn’t make the supplement manufacturers reveal the quantities used in their blend cocktails they’re selling.
I’ll get into how this “lack of information” situation is manipulated by unscrupulous supplement makers in the next section.
Just because they’re green and there’s a fern in back doesn’t mean they’re healthy…
Why proprietary blends are bad
The main problem with the FDA’s current guidelines regarding proprietary blends and the manufacturers who sell them is the lack of full transparency.
We are talking about a product that we as consumers are putting into our bodies.
Yet if it’s a proprietary blend, we have no idea what quantity we’re digesting of any of its ingredients.
That’s why I’m surprised that the FDA is giving supplement makers a free pass here.
Consumer safety & getting ripped off
Additionally, I see two serious problems for the buying public to deal with as a direct result of buying products that the supplement makers withhold the ingredients’ quantities.
- The health & safety of the consumer is compromised.
- The consumer could be getting ripped off and never know it.
An ingredient’s quantity is important to know
And so I can tell you with certainty that not knowing how much of something you’re taking can lead to unwanted side effects & potential health problems you don’t want.
Consumers have to be informed buyers
On top of that, the supplement industry is huge and the FDA is stretched thin.
They don’t test or review supplements before they hit the market like they do with prescription drugs.
They’re unlikely to become aware of a bad supplement until it’s already damaged somebody.
There was a case where a popular weight loss & bodybuilding supplement was linked to liver failure, hospitalizations, & death (2).
And another popular workout supplement was independently tested and meth-amphetamine — which is dangerous and highly addictive — was found in amongst the other ingredients (3).
Legitimate safety concerns demand that consumers know exactly what they’re taking.
How much of every ingredient is this person ingesting?
How to hide behind a Proprietary Blend
Here’s a quote from the highly respected supplement testing organization Consumer Labs:
“Proprietary formulas are often developed around an expensive ingredient, like CoQ10, because this allows a company to use less of the expensive ingredient, creating a formula in which the expensive ingredient is just a small part of the formula.” (4)
In the “How to Get Ripped Off Without Knowing It” file, I’m sure there’s a mug shot of a Supplement Facts label for a product that has a proprietary blend in it.
The “play” is simple.
A shady supplement maker can use the Proprietary Blend designation as a way to sell snake oil, AKA products that don’t work.
As an example, let’s say that XYZ Blend has 7 ingredients in it.
1. The supplement maker doesn’t have to reveal how much of each those 7 ingredients is in their proprietary XYZ Blend.
They only have to disclose the names of the ingredients, and then rank them in descending order by weight.
2. This loophole created by lax FDA guidelines allows the supplement maker – if they so choose – to use the first ingredient to comprise 99.99% of the XYZ Blend, and then use the remaining 6 ingredients for that last .01%.
3. The 6 ingredients that hardly exist in the XYZ Blend could consist of expensive & highly regarded ingredients that are known to be effective.
But since there’s so little of them in the XYZ Blend, they won’t do anything except be on the label in name only.
4. And the first ingredient could be a cheap, low-quality ingredient that does nothing and is essentially filler material.
Except in this case, it makes up 99% of the XYZ Blend.
5. The supplement is marketed on the reputation of the 6 well-regarded ingredients, and the inflated price reflects their position in the market.
But the product is actually 99% filler material that costs the supplement maker very little to produce.
Result: The buying public is duped into overpaying for a supplement that does nothing it claims to.
The above scenario isn’t my imagination running wild, it’s very real.
The term in the supplement industry for the shady practice I described above is fairy dusting.
Sprinkle a teeny bit of sparkle in a supplement just so the supplement maker can list those proven ingredients, even though they barely exist in the proprietary blend.
Fill the other 99% of it with cheap fillers.
Then make up a name like Z-Factor Metabolic Matrix, create an ad with pictures of fitness models, and charge a lot for it.
And under the current FDA guideline, this practice is totally legal.
How to make a proprietary blend in 1 easy step
The case for proprietary blend transparency
A number of supplement makers who are fully transparent with the ingredients in their proprietary blends are speaking out against the practice of hiding behind a brand name (XYZ Blend) and fairy dusting an empty supplement.
Says the head of EndurElite, a supplement maker for endurance athletes:
“…that just saves them a lot of money…saving them a dollar at your expense.” (5)
And from the editor for 4 Gauge, another workout supplement company that doesn’t hide their ingredient quantities:
“…the best supplements are always completely transparent about which ingredients and exactly how much of each make up their product, others aren’t. The pharmaceutical company…hides their contents behind a brand name.” (5)
Why supplement makers avoid transparency
Since the best supplement companies reveal all of the ingredients & all of their respective quantities, what would be a legitimate reason for a supplement maker to withhold that information?
Why would they choose to hide behind the shield that is the FDA’s Proprietary Blend guidelines?
We’ve looked at the dishonest reasons a supplement maker wouldn’t reveal the quantities in their XYZ Blend.
Could there be an honest reason for their secrecy?
We don’t want our formula stolen
The first answer I thought of is that they could say “We keep the formula secret because we don’t want our competitors to steal it”.
But that answer won’t fly here in the 21st century.
For a fee, anyone can have a supplement tested by an analytical testing lab.
There are dozens of labs who exist simply to test what’s in things like supplements & drugs.
And so imagine how often an honest supplement company uses these labs to test their own products.
They could easily have a competitor’s product analyzed for its ingredients and their quantities too.
So the “Colonel Sanders Secret Fried Chicken Recipe” line of defense doesn’t seem like a legitimate one.
Proprietary blends & the FDA
The FDA is our government’s entity that oversees food & medicines (6). After all, they’re the Food & Drug Administration.
One of their jobs is to insure the public is provided truthful information regarding things like what side effects are found in prescribed & over-the-counter drugs & medications, what is the nutrition inside that food you’re eating, etc.
But where does a product category like a supplement fall?
The broad range of supplements we take by mouth contains things like:
- diet & weight loss products
- herbal pills
- pre-workout powders & drinks
- energy drinks
- protein bars & protein powders
- fat-burner pills & drinks
- other athletic performance enhancers
The FDA calls them dietary supplements
Supplements of all kinds are not classified as drugs by the FDA, and thus they are considered in the FDA’s food category (7).
This is why the FDA calls them dietary supplements.
Why do I mention this?
Because the FDA treats drugs & food differently when it comes to what information drug & food manufacturers have to provide to the public.
I’ll let the National Institute of Health explain their reasoning (8):
“Dietary supplements are products intended to supplement the diet. They are not drugs and, therefore, are not intended to treat, diagnose, mitigate, prevent, or cure diseases.
Unlike drugs, which must be approved by the FDA before they can be marketed, dietary supplements do not require premarket review or approval by the FDA.”
Supplements are less regulated than pharmaceuticals
And so the FDA classifies supplements in their food category.
In general, food products (including the massive supplement industry) aren’t as strictly policed by the FDA as prescription & over the counter drugs are.
And another example of the FDA being a little more lax on the food side of things is their Proprietary Blend rule.
I’ve been to the FDA’s website and read the section in their Code of Regulations that deals specifically with the handling of proprietary blends.
Here it is if you’d like to read it for yourself.
Tip: It’s a giant wall of text type of document. I suggest doing a search in the article for the word proprietary; it’ll take you to that section.
A little lower they have examples of Supplement Facts labels, where you can see how a proprietary blend has to be listed.
Another example, this time with multiple proprietary blends
FDA’s rules for proprietary blend manufacturers
Here’s a summary of what’s expected of a supplement manufacturer on their packaging of a product that has a multi-ingredient formula in it.
They have to:
*Give it that blend/complex/formula label I’ve discussed
*List all of the ingredients that they used in that mixture
*List the ingredients in descending order according to their weight
*Provide the total weight of the proprietary blend on the same line as the blend’s name
*List the percentage (%) of daily value for each ingredient, unless there is not a daily value established for it by the FDA
(hint: Only common, well-known things like vitamin C, iron, sugar, protein, etc., have been given daily values by the FDA.)
*If there’s no daily value established, use an asterisk like this *. Then on the bottom of the nutrition label, do this:
“* – Daily Value Not Established”
That’s it. As mentioned earlier, the supplement maker doesn’t have to reveal the individual doses used in anything they decide to designate as a Proprietary Blend.
The FDA isn’t as effective as it should be
An enlightening though troubling editorial from the New England Journal of Medicine highlighted the failings of the FDA when it comes to protecting consumers from fraudulent & potentially dangerous supplements (9).
The article details the lack of an effective monitoring policy & process when it comes to supplements & consumer safety.
A few of its main points are worth sharing:
- Americans spend over $32 billion on supplements
- We’re buying over 85,000 different supplements
- Sports supplements that were laced with meth-amphetamines
- FDA intervenes only after harm has been reported
So what’s our solution?
Everything I’ve discussed above regarding supplement manufacturers who use proprietary blends and the FDA’s current (relaxed) policy on this issue leads me to wonder:
How do we as consumers respond?
As I said earlier, we have a right to be informed.
We have a responsibility to keep ourselves safe.
And we need to avoid getting ripped off in the marketplace.
I think the bottom line solution is simple enough:
The FDA needs to require full ingredient disclosure for all supplement products, and close the loophole that the current Proprietary Blend guidelines provide.
Until that time that the FDA does that, it is both safer & financially prudent to avoid buying any supplement that hides its ingredients recipe behind the Proprietary Blend label.
I hope my article on proprietary blends is useful to you, and I wish you well on your fitness journey.