If you've ever bought dietary supplements, chances are that you've come across the term "proprietary blend" once or twice. This term often shows on the back of your bottle or tub, more specifically on the ingredient label. The manufacturers sometimes try to fancy this term up by calling it something like "Proprietary Muscle Blend", "Muscle Performance Blend", "Thermogenic Support Blend" etc. So what are these proprietary blends? Are they bad? Should we avoid them and why do supplement companies use them in the first place? Read along and find out.
Proprietary Blends in the Supplements Business: What are they exactly?
Before we go any further, let's just quickly cover what proprietary blends are essentially. In the USA, the Food and Drug Administration normally requires the manufacturers of dietary supplements to list the amount of each ingredient in their products (by mass) on the "Supplement Facts" label. However, there is sort of a "loophole" in the regulations that allow manufacturers to lump a bunch of ingredients together with a "blend" and simply list the total amount of the blend rather than the individual amounts of each ingredient.
Now, it's required that each individual ingredient within the proprietary blend is listed in order of predominance of dosage (highest to lowest amount in other words). This means that the dose of the first ingredient listed as part of the proprietary blend is equal to or higher than the second ingredient, and the dose of the second ingredient is equal to or higher than that of the third one and so forth.
Doesn't sound too bad, does it?
If you have a little know-how and some basic understanding of proper dosing when it comes to dietary supplements, you could probably do some reverse engineering of the proprietary blend to figure out the corresponding dose of each individual ingredient.
However, it is not all supplement companies that have your best interest at heart, and they're not all interested in giving you the optimal dosages of each ingredient in their supplements either. For example; even though we know the exact clinically effective dose of creatine monohydrate to be around 3-5 grams, just because a proprietary blend has it listed as one of the ingredients in it, it doesn't mean that the the ones who formulated the product actually included that amount in the product.
Alright. This might be a little confusing. Why don't we take a real-life example of what a proprietary blend found in a very common pre-workout looks like?
How to Decipher Proprietary Blends In Supplements
Looking at this ingredient label, we can see we're dealing with a 2.6 gram "Endurance + Ripping Matrix" that consists of undisclosed amounts of the following ingredients:
- Green Tea Extract
- Guayusa Extract
A total of 8 ingredients in a 2.6 gram proprietary blend - the majority of which are stimulants. Now, considering the scientific research that's been done on Beta-Alanine, we know that the effective dosage lies right around something like 3.2 grams (it can also be higher, though).
Look at the proprietary blend again. It's only 2.6 grams. We're not getting anywhere near the 3.2 grams at all. Let's say the the manufacturer of this supplement made the decision to only provide half of the clinically effective dosage and just put in 1.6 grams of Beta-Alanine into this product. Then this leaves us with 1 gram of product to split between seven other ingredients.
The second ingredient listed is caffeine. Scientists have used various amounts of this ingredient in exercise studies, ranging from 100 to over 600mg. So how can we possibly know how much caffeine this product contains? Also, what's the Guayusa Extract standardized for? It could be caffeine or any one of the other 100 or more compounds found in the plant, and how on earth are we supposed to know?
That's right. We don't know, and that is exactly what the problem is with proprietary blends.
We have absolutely no idea how much of each ingredient we're actually getting. We could be getting 100 mg of caffeine, we could be getting 400 mg of caffeine. We just don't know, and that's unsettling for athletes, especially those with a sensitivity to caffeine.
Using proprietary blends opens up the door for endless possibilities and combinations of dosages of the individual ingredients. Going on with our example from before, this product could in theory have 1 gram of Beta-Alanine, 1.6 grams or even 2 grams.
How are we then supposed to know how much caffeine, TeaCrine, Rauwolscine or any of the other ingredients found in this proprietary blend there is?
Right again. We stand no chance, and it's all done on purpose by the companies manufacturing the supplements.
Random label of a supplement containing a propietary blend.
Proprietary Blends and Greed Among Manufacturers Of Supplements
Giving a reason as to why the manufacturers of dietary supplements choose to use proprietary blends in their products is quite easy, and it can in fact be done using one single word: greed.
When these companies use proprietary blends, they don't want you as a consumer to know how little of each ingredient they're sprinkling into their products. Instead of openly disclosing the dosage of each individual ingredient for you to be sure that you are in fact getting the true effective dosages of the ingredients, the companies just pixie-dust in very small dosages of products hidden by the proprietary blends, hoping that your trust is with them anyway.
To be completely honest, nothing could be further from the truth in this scenario. Manufacturers of dietary supplements have one primary goal: making money. If you think they're actually concerned about your performance, fat loss, strength, productivity, etc., think again. They're a business first and foremost, and just like any other business, they're in the industry to make profit off their consumers.
There are often a number of different reasons cited by the companies who use proprietary blends in their supplements, such as:
It's not rare to hear supplement companies say that they've come up with some "magical" or "innovative" blend that they then choose to hide behind a proprietary blend. They then justify this by saying that if they disclose this "game-changing" formula, their competitors are just going to steal it and make their own products.
This is absolute nonsense, and essentially just a silly excuse that manufacturers of supplements use to clean their consciences when they're feeling guilty. The truth is that if a company wanted to steal a formula from one of their competitors - even if it was hidden in a proprietary blend - all they would really have to do was to get a tub of their competitor's product and send it to a third party laboratory where the product would be run through a chemical analysis that would disclose the exact amounts of each ingredient found in the blend.
No. It's really no more difficult than that. So, protecting and hiding your "game-changing" formula that you've "worked so hard" to come up with behind a proprietary blend is just complete BS really.
Here is another false reason for companies using proprietary blends in their supplements. They'll often claim that certain ingredients work with each other to create a synergy, and therefore, you can get by with a smaller amount of each ingredient due to the synergistic effects of the ingredients. As such, they'll also say that they've conducted the scientific "research" and found the magical ratio of underdosed ingredients that still work somehow, and then enclose it in a proprietary blend to protect the time they've spent researching the ingredients.
Again, this is nothing but a big, fat lie. The truth is that there's a small set of ingredients that have been proven to improve physical and psychological performance in humans, and everyone knows those dosages.
There is no "secret formula", combination or synergy behind a proprietary blend that underdoses Creatine Monohydrate and Beta-Alanine (or any other combination of ingredients for that matter) and gives superior results to actually taking in the full dosages backed by research.
Now that we've successfully debunked the main reasons that the companies selling supplements use proprietary blends, let's go back to the first reason stated: GREED.
When listing a bunch of different ingredients in a proprietary blend, supplement companies lead you to believe that you're actually getting a supplement that is fully-dosed, but in reality, they're just sprinkling in little, tiny amounts of well-known ingredients, and this creates a tremendous profit margin for these companies.
Including a full 3.2 grams of Beta-Alanine alongside 5 grams of Creatine Monohydrate and 2.5 grams of Betaine is far more expensive than making a proprietary 2.5 gram "Explosive Strength Blend" that includes those same exact three ingredients.
The use of proprietary blends in supplements allow the companies behind them to cut corners and make more money, and all you're left with is an empty wallet and a glorified pill or powder that does little to actually improve your performance.
It all sounds pretty bad at this point, right? We've only just scratched the surface of the issues with proprietary blends.
More Reasons To Avoid Proprietary Blends In Supplements
Let's put up a scenario here: There is a fantastic product on the market that contains a proprietary blend. Let's say this product is called "Neuro Boost". It's designed to work as a nootropic product that increases productivity, focus and memory etc.
Now, if we turn the bottle around and look at the back of it, we'll see a 2-gram proprietary blend that includes:
- Alpha GPC
- Lion's Mane
- Mucuna Pruriens
- Caffeine Anhydrous
- Bacopa Monnieri
We trust that this company has in fact included the research-backed doses of these ingredients since there have been promising reviews surfacing about the product, meaning that we're probably getting somewhere around 600 mg of Alpha GPC, 500mg of Lion's Mane, 150mg of Bacopa Monnieri, etc.
The first sales round of the product proves to be a massive success, and "Neuro Boost" is sold out in no time. Now, the company behind the supplement does a second round of sales, but this time around, things are a little different.
In an attempt to increase their profit margin, the company starts "altering" their formula a little bit. Instead of using the same standardizations of the herbal extracts (Lion's Mane, Bacopa Monnieri, Mucuna Pruriens), which are very expensive ingredients to put in dietary supplements by the way, they choose to go with broad-spectrum extracts that save them a very large sum of money in manufacturing costs.
Are you ready for the worst part?
The consumer is none the wiser. What may in fact look like the exact same formula on the outside of the bottle is actually something completely different. Sure, the ingredients labelled are the exact same, but the actual quality, contents and potency of those extracts is significantly worse, which means that the consumer has just spent a ton of money on a product that isn't going to do much for their cognition at all - but it does increase the bottom line of the supplement company selling the product!
This is the bigger and less known scam that goes on with proprietary blend supplements. This "bait and switch" technique going from one batch of products to the next is in fact perfectly legal to do. "What?" Yes. You read it right. It's LEGAL for the companies to do. This is also a very common reason as to why one batch of a pre-workout supplement may seem to hit harder and work more effectively than others do.
Oh, and guess what?
Even though we mostly see this problem with pre-workouts and fat burners, this problem is in fact also plaguing your precious, good ol' and trusty protein powder.
How so is this? It's very simple, actually.
Let's say you buy a tub of protein powder that you think you'll really like which has a whey protein blend of:
- Whey protein concentrate
- Whey protein isolate
- Whey hydrolysate
This product contains a total of 25 grams of protein, 4 grams of carbohydrates and 2 grams of fat per serving. You love the taste of it and the macronutrients also fit into your diet plan very well. The months go by, and you keep on buying the product but never really give much thought to the ingredients or profile with each subsequent purchase.
Then, one day, you happen to randomly look at the tub and realise that the macronutrient profile of it has indeed changed.
Now, your precious protein only has 20 grams of protein per serving, 9 grams of carbohydrates and 5 grams of fat. What happened here?!
Quite simply: another batch-to-batch "bait and switch" has been done by the manufacturer as an attempt to cut costs and increase profit margin - but there's not only one way they can do this trick with protein either.
"You're kidding, right?" No, sadly not. You see, the company could simply just adjust the ratios of whey concentrate to whey isolate to whey hydrolysate, bumping up the amount of concentrate and barely even putting in a couple of grams of isolate and hydrolysate. That's the most obvious switch, but there's another one ...
Swapping a cheaper grade of whey protein concentrate into the product formula. Understand this: whey concentrate can range in between 35-80% protein by mass, which is a massive range of variability. The manufacturer could be using WPC-80 in one batch, which is the "really good" stuff, and then using WPC-50, -60 or -70 in the next batch, and you'd have no clue as a consumer whatsoever.
The only thing you would notice would perhaps be your stomach being more upset than usual if you're sensitive to lactose, but if you're not, you'd be none the wiser unless you sit down and scrutinise the label facts each and every time you purchase your whey protein.
Just like the previous example that we had, this one again is perfectly legal, and serves to highlight the massive issue with proprietary blends - we don't know anything about the exact amounts of the ingredients we're consuming, or the quality of those ingredients.
Proprietary Blends in Supplements: Just Say No
In today's dage and age, there is no reason at all to use proprietary blends in supplements. The only reason that the manufacturers of supplements use them is simply to deceive you, the consumer, and increase their bottom line. Said quite simply: proprietary blends are just legalized fraud - loopholes in the Food and Drug regulations that allow companies selling supplements to deceive you legally. It can't be said in any other way.
These claims of "trade secrets" and/or "magical formulas" are no more than plain lies. The effective compounds and doses are out in the open and easy for anyone to access, and if a company isn't using those ingredients in the correct and clinically effective dosages, they're just trying to bamboozle you.
The truth is that if a company doesn't want to tell you exactly what they put in their supplements, it's because you don't want you to know how much they're in fact underdosing them. It's that simple.
Sure again, they'll claim that the "synergism" of the ingredients means that you can get by with lesser amounts than those in documented scientific research, but these are not tested nor verified, and they're simply false claims backed by nothing what so ever. This is all carefully planned and carried out by smart marketing agencies to help companies selling supplements "pull one over" on you, the consumer.
A little piece of advice: DO NOT SUPPORT THESE KINDS OF PRODUCTS.
The best scenario possible is that you've completely thrown away your hard-earned money on a product that won't do much at all for you no matter what your goal is and what the product claims to do. Worst case scenario is that you're simply consuming a heaping amount of stimulants that can have you rushed to the emergency room.
Why would you want to waste your money or risk your health and well being by playing Russian roulette with a product by a company that is in fact willingly hiding things from you?
No. It doesn't make any sense at all.
The Take-Home Message
Proprietary blends is a clever way for companies manufacturing and selling dietary supplements to make sure you have no idea what and how much you're taking, ultimately putting both your wallet and your health at risk. They should have no place in supplements, especially not the ones that contain high amounts of stimulatory ingredients.
If you buy open-label and fully disclosed products, you can rest assured that you get the most bang for you buck, and it's the only way possible to have certainty that you're getting the proper dosages of the ingredients you want in your product.
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