The classic amber glass bottles bearing Bluebonnet Nutrition Corporation’s iconic blue flower have graced the shelves of natural product stores for 25 years. As the dietary supplement brand from Sugar Land, TX, reaches its silver anniversary, here’s a look at how they’ve built a past, present and future on uncompromising devotion to natural foods stores, consumer trust and high quality products.
All Bets on Independent RetailersThe natural products industry is worth $635.6 billion and growing, with dietary supplements playing a major role (1). In the past few decades, the industry has also matured from a small devoted community to one where products can be found online and in megastores. For the past 25 years, however, anyone in search of Bluebonnet products has known to make their first and only stop at a natural foods store.
Bluebonnet’s commitment to these specialty stores is deep-rooted, as modeled in their relationship with For Goodness Sake Natural Food Store, a 40-year-old family-owned natural food store in New Braunfels, TX. The store has carried the brand’s products “since the beginning,” according to Lauren Krock, who co-owns the business with her sister Shannon Hanz. Their mother, Beverly Krock, who founded the store, had known Bluebonnet President Gary Barrows before he started the company in 1991. “One day, he asked her what she thought about him creating his own vitamin line and if she would consider carrying it in her store. She was completely supportive and guaranteed she would bring it in and sell it,” Krock says. “Twenty-five years later, Bluebonnet is one of our best-selling vitamin lines.”Built into For Goodness Sake’s long history is an appreciation for many facets of the Bluebonnet brand: “Bluebonnet differentiates itself from other companies by continuing to produce high-quality, well-researched, affordable products, while continuing to be a family-owned business. They are just as loyal to the smaller independent stores as they are to the bigger chains,” Krock states.
This exclusive distribution to natural foods stores is becoming an increasingly rare feature in the dietary supplement industry. As Trisha Sugarek MacDonald, senior director of research and development at Bluebonnet, notes, there is a high cost and investment associated with the quality Bluebonnet aims to maintain, with millions of dollars spent in R&D, technology, manufacturing and laboratory equipment.
Despite this, she says the company works to “deliver on that brand promise without jumping ship to other distribution channels in order to pay for that level of quality and purity.” Why?
The answer is based on a simple but profound belief: education. “Without this key element, it would be almost impossible for a brand to get traction,” says Bob Barrows, Jr., vice president of sales and marketing at Bluebonnet. “Our stores offer great value to the consumer by being their source of natural solutions and how they can help address specific nutritional requirements and health concerns.”
Bill Arthur of Nutraceutical Solutions Consulting, a general management and marketing consultant for Bluebonnet, observes that “you don’t get that when you walk into Walmart or Costco—there’s no one to ask!” He also says the company’s relationship with natural foods stores is symbiotic at its core: “Bluebonnet is 100% behind them because they feel the only way their brand is going to survive and thrive is through them, and vice-versa. The only way their natural food retailer partners will survive and thrive is with brands that stay exclusive like Bluebonnet and aren’t sold down the street at the local Piggly Wiggly or on the Internet for 30–60% less.”
Arthur says Bluebonnet’s support of natural food retailers will stay steadfast for many years to come. “This allegiance has also earned us close relationships—as well as deep and meaningful friendships with most of our retailers who entrust us to be the brand that stands with them and only them,” Bob says.
Transparency and QualityConsumer products at all levels, including dietary supplements, are now under higher scrutiny than ever before as evidenced by the growing importance of third-party certification and “the media, consistently sensationalizing invalid findings or renegade companies that are breaking the law in an attempt to discredit our industry as one that is unsafe, unregulated or under-regulated,” Bob says.
Though government regulation and industry players must all take part, “consumers are really driving this,” Arthur says. “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was forced to come out with guidelines to define the term ‘natural’ because many marketers have used the term loosely and have abused its meaning. Same with the word ‘quality.’”Luckily, Bluebonnet has consistently shown itself to be ahead of the curve on transparency. While the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (2)—requiring food labels to disclose major allergens—took effect just 10 years ago in 2006, Gary states that it was an intuitive measure starting from Bluebonnet’s inception in 1991.
“When we started on our journey over 25 years ago, we had a single mission: to produce an exclusive, science-based supplement brand made up of the highest quality nutritional supplements as close to nature as humanly possible,” Gary says. “We felt it required that our supplements were free of most allergens—which was revolutionary at the time.”
The company has remained several steps ahead on another issue bubbling in the public eye: non-GMO. The extent of government regulation is currently limited to the FDA’s November 2015 issue of voluntary labeling guidance for companies to indicate whether or not foods are derived from genetically engineered plants (3). Keeping in line with the company’s core values of nature, science, quality, truth and knowledge, Bluebonnet recently introduced a “Made with Non-GMO Ingredients” symbol on its labels to reflect its guarantee to consumers that their supplements are free of ingredients derived from genetically modified sources. The symbol is new, but the company’s internal non-GMO standard has been brewing for years.
“We began this selection process of 425+ different raw materials years ago, since every single ingredient—even excipients and coating materials—needed to be vetted through this program so that we could start sourcing options if the ingredient was found to be sourced from genetically modified seeds,” Sugarek MacDonald says.
The process confronted challenges, like the fact that more than 90% of U.S. soybean, cotton and corncrops come from genetically modified seeds. “We have had to search the globe for viable non-GMO options…With over 425 ingredients, this process, needless to say, has been a long time in the making,”says Sugarek MacDonald.
Bluebonnet product labels can carry any of 14 symbols, signifying that a supplement is allergen-free, sustainably sourced, non-GMO, NSF-certified, USDA Organic or KOF-K kosher certified. The company achieved kosher certification in 2006 from KOF-K, which certifies products from almost 1,200 plants across 43 countries, explains Sugarek MacDonald.
“Our customers are very loyal, so I think they appreciate seeing that a company like Bluebonnet has certifications on its products,” Krock says. “As retailers, we like to know that Bluebonnet is going above and beyond to get those certifications because it evokes trust, honesty and commitment to being the best they can be.”
Last year was particularly a banner year for the company in achieving official and third-party certification. While Bluebonnet’s sports nutrition products like Extreme Edge had been NSF Certified for Sport—meaning it is free of contaminants and 200+ substances banned by major sporting authorities—since 2012, the company was additionally awarded certification for its facility in 2015. “This provided the confidence and opportunity for their retailers to jump back into the $3.2-billion sports nutrition industry, an industry in which they sat on the sidelines all these years because they didn’t trust the quality and safety of the brands in that often controversial category,” Arthur says. Bluebonnet was also recognized last year as USDA Organic Handlers by the Texas Department of Agriculture.
Perhaps the best example of Bluebonnet’s commitment to quality is its path to becoming NSF-registered for Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP)—a certification for the FDA’s guidelines for manufacturing procedures, testing methods, equipment, facilities and controls.Even before GMPs were required for the dietary supplement industry, Bluebonnet implemented internal standards based on cGMP protocols for pharmaceuticals and food. These were adjusted with the aid of expert consultants as the relevant dietary supplement guidelines were set and refined. “Once we knew our SOPs and practices were in line and above cGMP standards for dietary supplements, we chose NSF to confirm our internal practices and received their esteemed certification in 2015,” Sugarek MacDonald states.
With regular audits, certifications will be a continual investment in quality assurance, and a necessary one, close to Bluebonnet’s mission. “Each certification [is] not only an evolution of our DNA, it [is] also a progression of the principals upon which our industry was founded,” Gary says.
Keeping PaceWith a stellar year of certifications behind them and standards high above any consumer, media or government reproach, Bluebonnet also maintains an active role in supporting the industry, whether as a member of the Natural Products Association, funding lobbying efforts or engaging members of Congress as an industry representative. In 2014, the company hosted Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) on a tour of its facilities.
“We were excited for the Congressman to get a bird’s eye view of what respected dietary supplement manufacturers are doing so that he could better understand the products we sell and just how sophisticated this once small cottage industry has become,” Bob says. “It was valuable for Rep. Olson to understand the significant role supplements play in healthcare and their value and economic impact in reducing healthcare costs.”
Bluebonnet has over 350 unique supplements (600+ SKUs) and continues to unveil new developments. Research has produced notable highlights, such as being the only brand to have CoQ10 and Cellular Active CoQ10 Ubiquinol in vegetarian soft gels with a base of non-GMO sunflower oil instead of soy, Sugarek MacDonald states. She also puts focus on the “distinguishing effort” shown in their whole food supplements, like the Super Earth and Super Fruit lines. As Arthur notes, “Many consumers feel that they should get most of their nutrients from the foods they eat every day. So, they want to take supplements that share that philosophy.”
What’s next? Keep an eye out at Natural Products Expo West for Bluebonnet’s newest product offerings of Skinny Garcinia, a weight-management formula, and Targeted Choice, a “line of non-GMO, kosher-certified whole food-based structure-function formulas.”WF
Published in WholeFoods Magazine March 20161. K. Chiarello-Ebner, “2015 WholeFoods Magazine Retailer Survey Overview,” WholeFoods Magazine 38 (12), 18–25 (2015). 2. “Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-282, Title II),” www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/Allergens/ucm106187.htm, accessed Feb. 3, 2015. 3. “Guidance for Industry: Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether Foods Have or Have Not Been Derived from Genetically Engineered Plants,” www.fda.gov/food/guidanceregulation/guidancedocumentsregulatoryinformation/ucm059098.htm, accessed Feb. 3, 2015.