Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.
Buying blueberries can be a leap of faith. You can only hope they come from a reasonably environmentally friendly farm.
But people further enticed by the so-called super-ingredients in blueberries – anthocyanins – need to take an even bigger leap of faith. The label on the supplement bottle may be bright and clinical-looking, but there's little that says how the ingredient is extracted from the fruit. It may be produced using clean technology or with chemical solvents.
Talk to Benjamin Lightburn, president of Mazza Innovation Ltd. based in Delta., B.C., and he'll explain how some producers use chemical solvents to extract ingredients.
"It is crazy. You have the most health conscious and most fanatically caring consumers, who are consuming botanical extracts which they assume are made in some Earth-friendly way," he said. "But they're really being made with nail polish remover and paint thinner, and that's not an exaggeration."
He specified how acetone and methanol, both chemical solvents, can be used in this process, although industry watchers note that Canadian health-supplement products have been moving away from these solvents for years due to relatively tight Canadian regulation.
His company, on the other hand, uses ordinary water, heated between 100 and 200 degrees Celsius, and with water pressure a touch under 200 psi, to extract ingredients from foods without using chemicals. In addition to blueberry extract, Mazza produces extracts of organic green tea, cranberries, artichokes, pomegranates and others.
"It uses temperature and pressure to make water behave like these dirty solvents. So, we're able to get the same or better results," Mr. Lightburn said. "It's cheaper, it's faster, and it's more economical than the competing processes."
Mazza's blueberry extract is shipped as a powder to end-product producers who make vitamin tablets, snacks and beauty products. The extract is vegan, with no ingredients derived from animal sources or genetically modified organisms, the company says.
Canada is said to have relatively robust regulations through Health Canada's Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Directorate, which has helped to establish consumer awareness and a strong market here for products containing fewer or no chemicals.
Consumer demand is high in the United States, too, and Mazza has made inroads there. "We actually have dietary supplement companies in the United States where we've come up with a whole line of new extracts for them to offer," Mr. Lightburn said.
In Canada, "we're really eager to work with more Canadian dietary supplement manufacturers, obviously the ones that care about quality first."
But he added, "I also think that Canadians are more conservative, a little bit less risk-taking. And so, they [end-product producers] have maybe waited to see on the sidelines whether our technology could be fully scalable."
For now, Mazza is looking to find its niche in Canada.
"It's identifying the companies that are willing to adopt the newest and the cleanest technology. Yes, our process is more economical, but we're not interested in entering a race to the bottom. What we want to do is identify the companies that want to advertise the quality, not low price," he said.
The Challenge: How can Mazza get a larger foothold in the Canadian market?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Peter Jones, professor and director of the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals, University of Manitoba
You've got to identify where the sweet spot is for your market. It sounds like Mazza wants to be an ingredients supplier, so they would want to go after the bigger natural health-product companies, the Jamiesons and Royal Natural Products of the world. It's all about price and quality. I would imagine blueberry extract would be a fairly pricey commodity.
Nancy Smithers, president and founder of Nova Scotia Organics Ltd., a health-supplement company in Dartmouth, N.S.
We don't have a lot of ingredient extractors in Canada. I do some of my own extracting for some ingredients. Mazza is doing almost the exact same thing I'm doing, but they are using another method. But I would look at them as a supplier to me.
Say I was at production capacity. Because I am organic certified, I don't have a lot of suppliers I can go to. If I needed 500,000 tons more blueberry extract, maybe they could pump out more than I can to supplement my production. Maybe they can do it more quickly and cleanly, I don't know. So, I would look at them not as a competitor, but as a supplier. They have to market themselves a bit more.
Lane Burman, general manager, Cocoon Apothecary, a natural skin-care product company in Kitchener, Ont.
As a company I'm not interested in just transactional relationships with any of my suppliers. We build relationships, so that they understand that when we scale up, they need to scale up. And I don't just go by trust, warm and fuzzy feelings. I need a certificate of analysis when the product comes in, otherwise we don't accept it.
So, for me, as a buyer, I will call their customer service and I find one person, and that's now my sole contact person. Anytime I have a problem, I would call that person.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW
Consider going after big end-producers, because margins may be tight with expensive raw ingredients such as blueberries.
Look to competitors
Consider supplying to competitors; you may end up helping to supplement their production.
Build customer support
Given the highly specific needs of end-product producers, close customer support is crucial.
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Interviews have been edited and condensed.