Material sourcing for success

From DNA analysis to chemical screening, botanical identification remains a mainstay of working with plant-based ingredients

The global functional foods market is estimated to reach a value of $441.56 billion in 2022 whereas the global supplement market is destined to be worth $160 billion in the same year.

Although both markets continue to steadily rise, change is happening within them; we are witnessing a shift from fortification with isolated nutrients to the incorporation of botanicals with naturally occurring nutrients. This shift is being driven by increased consumer awareness about overall health and wellness, how our consumption habits affect it and the various trends that have developed because of them, such as clean label.

The move towards botanicals has caused tremendous growth in dietary supplements and functional foods featuring plant-based ingredients.

The diversity of Earth’s plants is extremely vast and is reflected in the variety of botanical ingredient options available. This requires finished product manufacturers to not only consider a botanical’s colour, flavour and product development benefits and challenges, but also its source, supply chain and quality risks.

Balancing both quality and safety is a universal issue in food and nutritional ingredients … but working with plant-based ingredients often presents unique challenges. Botanicals can vary greatly in physical characteristics, desired quality parameters and the agricultural practices involved in their production. The variability in the material necessitates skilful sourcing, thorough testing and flexible processing capabilities.

The difficulty of sourcing botanicals is often overlooked, especially those that are wild-crafted, sourced from across the globe or a combination of the two. The importance of good material sourcing cannot be understated.

Species identification is critical, particularly when dealing with plant-based ingredients. A simple case of adding cinnamon to a formulation gets more complicated when one considers that the four main species of cinnamon — C. verum, C. burmanii, C. loureiroi and C. cassia — are difficult to distinguish in whole form and impossible to distinguish when derived without sophisticated chemical testing.

Testing, testing …

Botanical identification has always been a mainstay of working with plant-based ingredients, and chromatographic analysis is an essential verification tool. Furthermore, advances in technology and the reduced cost of genomic sequencing have allowed for the use of DNA fingerprinting to identify plant species. DNA analysis, although not currently universal, is likely to become a primary means of proving the identity of raw botanical materials.

In addition to identification, significant effort is required to provide a safe product that meets the standards of the target market. Botanical ingredients are often sourced globally, meaning that both farming and environmental practices can vary region to region. Pesticide application and heavy metal exposure are common, if not universal, and rank among the top concerns of consumers. Thus, chemical screening is a key aspect of material sourcing.

The global supply chain also involves microbial safety implications, as cross contamination, hybridisation, and raw agricultural products tend to carry high bacterial loads. The ability to sterilise raw materials becomes critical when the end product is not designed to be heated or cooked before consumption.

Steam sterilisation and other methods are good approaches to reducing the microbial load, but expertise in the application of these technologies is required; it’s often a delicate balance between microbial safety and organoleptic properties and/or active compound content.

Compliance counts

Above all else, validation of processes, such as sterilisation methods, and tests are important. A process or test may be applicable in one situation but not another; validation determines its usefulness and gives meaning to its results.

There are several means by which a company validates its processes and tests; one such way that instils confidence and trust in a company is third-party certifications. For instance, in the United States, Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) compliance and Safe Quality Food (SQF) certification assures food safety, process validation and document validation.

SQF is a HACCP-based safety and quality management system that standardises food safety requirements, provides proof of the company’s due diligence and also complies with the most stringent regulatory requirements.

For testing, the well-regarded certification ISO 17025 is one of the highest standards that a laboratory can achieve.

Internationally recognised, the certification indicates technical proficiency and the ability of a laboratory to generate accurate and consistent data.

ISO 17025 includes two main sections: management requirements, which relates primarily to the operation of a laboratory’s quality management system; and technical requirements, which determine the reliability of the laboratory’s testing. A laboratory must have a thorough and documented quality management system to be considered for accreditation. ISO17025 assures testing validation and accuracy of reporting.

In light of the massive amount of recalls and lawsuits that affected our industry last year, manufacturers need to be more vigilant than ever. Make sure the product you are purchasing has validated sterilisation and testing methods, not just some verbiage on the C of A.

It is especially important to validate the processes and tests of natural ingredients as each are inherently very different from each other. It is imperative to not only enquire about the processes and tests that a supplier has in place, but also whether they are validated.

Presence does not guarantee effectiveness and quality. In the food system, validation means safety. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately 48 million Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalised and 3000 die of foodborne diseases each year. The lack of process and test validation can not only result in severe repercussions for the consumer … but also for the manufacturer in terms of bottom line and reputation.

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