Vertical Integration Addresses Quality Concerns

by Qi Jia, Ph.D.



Natural products offer today’s consumers and providers a wealth of options for holistic health maintenance, physiological structure/function support, and even gentle alternatives to more invasive allopathic methods. Yet, even with this reputation for achieving health through avenues that are gentler on the body and the environment, natural products have come under some serious scrutiny of late. And rightly so.

While one would hope all manufacturers would have the consumers’ absolute best interests in mind, for many that is not the case. Natural and botanical products may be thought of as “the better way”, often taking a moral high ground compared to other approaches. Yet, it cannot be assumed that the industry is perfectly self-regulating along those perceived higher standards. It is of utmost necessity for cosmetic and personal care companies to thoroughly research the manufacturing companies that handle their products and all the raw ingredients that go into them.

The sad reality is that corners may be cut and substandard product used to save time and cost to get a final package onto shelves. The result can be an equivalent to the proverbial bottle of snake oil, with few health benefits and possibly even negative effects. It is no wonder there is still a substantial amount of media and consumer skepticism toward natural ingredients.

Navigating this marketplace requires extensive research and commitment on the part of companies that truly hold consumers’ well-being as a core value. A reputable, vertically-integrated manufacturer is capable of setting standards for and monitoring all stages of product creation. It begins not just at the product conception and development stage, but literally in the field.

The selection of soil is directly responsible for some issues such as heavy metal content in extracts, as well as how fast the plants can be grown again and the yield of natural compounds in original plants. Control over soil maintenance is also vital in ensuring longterm productivity of plant sources that retain a stable composition over the years, with much less likelihood of contamination by other plant species. Regarding sustainability, buyers should look for a vertically-integrated producer that is dedicated to discovering the best in nature, but is able to do so without leaving a “footprint” that adversely impacts the environment.

Some extracts come from plants that can take years to accumulate, so it is necessary to think in the long-term and work with responsible partners that care about the environment. To that end, it is vital to determine whether a producer is committed to the principles of biodiversity and respecting the preservation of indigenous biological resources. This ensures the economic benefits of commercialization of the botanical is fully witnessed and shared with the country that assists in the discovery process. Not only is the product superior because its production can be sustained in the long-term, the country where it grows and the people of that nation also benefit.

Cultivation standards are also critical with regards to the application of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and ensuring consistent quality. With a vertically-integrated supplier, there is the ability to prevent pesticide contamination and even to move toward organic production. High cultivation standards ensure the plants offer an abundant, consistently high-quality biomass.

Industry colleagues have relayed personal stories about purchasing botanical extracts from the open market, where the microbial contamination levels in the plants were so high that organic-approved processes such as ozonation could not kill all the microbes and remove the toxins released from them. Sometimes, the extra steps necessary to rid the botanicals of those contaminants ended up reducing the activity of the extracts. If, instead, it is ensured the botanicals are free from contaminants at the growing stage, activity and efficacy are simply and easily protected for the consumer.

Another control point is the timing of the harvest and extraction. The point in the season at which harvest occurs directly impacts the biochemical structure and content of the botanical being sourced. From personal experience, I have seen extracts purchased from the open market change so dramatically that all the nutrition labels for a dietary supplement (i.e., sodium content, carbohydrate counts, etc.) did not match the product inside, so the labels had to be thrown away. The nutrition values changed because of the time of year the original plants were harvested. This shifting of the nutrient levels in the plant could lead to a change in efficacy and safety for both topical and oral ingredients.

Beyond planting, growing and harvesting, the vertically-integrated manufacturer oversees and reports on its own handling of ingredients during processing. This includes extracting processes, dehydration, blending and, depending on the facility’s capabilities, final encapsulation, packaging and intelligent distribution to the consumer through the most efficient channels. Also, a well-footed manufacturer will be capable of high throughput screening for mechanism of action and genetic expression of the compounds, along with demonstrating human oral and topical safety, efficacy and ease of formulation in cosmetic products, prior to any commercialization.

The expansive Phytologix library at Unigen Pharmaceuticals serves as a case in point of the control a vertically-integrated manufacturer has to offer. The library includes over 10,000 medicinal plants, more than 10,000 plant extracts and greater than 250,000 fractions and pure compounds. Always evaluating which plants may be grown on Unigen’s own farms, these libraries are screened against protein, gene, cell and tissue targets to find novel, patented, safe and efficacious natural compounds that can offer physiological and health benefits for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, dietary supplements, and medical and functional foods. This control and oversight is evident at all stages—from planting and harvesting to packaging of a product possessing proven efficacy—guaranteeing a truly natural, healthy and beneficial product that suppliers, providers and consumers can trust.

Qi Jia, Ph.D., has studied ethnomedicinal plants for more than 20 years. He is the chief scientific officer at Unigen Pharmaceuticals Inc. (, a leading natural products research and development company and proprietary ingredients supplier for the cosmetics, supplement, functional food and botanical drugs industries. While following superior standards for vertical integration in botanical growing and research, Dr. Jia oversees the expansion of the Phytologix library of medicinal plants with 2000 new collections added each year and a marine library added in 2007.

Key Questions for Suppliers

1. How much knowledge and scientific data do you have with regard to ingredient safety and efficacy?

2. What kind of quality control standards are in place to ensure the purity and consistency in every shipment?

3. Does your company oversee the actual growing of the original plants that yield the cosmetic active ingredients?

4. How do you ensure there has been no adulteration and cross contamination of heavy metals, pesticides and other toxic plant species?

5. What standards do you follow to ensure long-term sustainability of the botanical source(s)?

6. Have you conducted your own research and human clinicals to prove efficacy and verify dosage?

7. What kind of services do you offer in the final production, packaging and distribution processes?


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