Whether you’re relatively new to the world of dietary supplements or have plenty of experience under your belt, you’ve probably run into the term “proprietary blend” before.
It’s a pretty common phrase that that can be found, in some form or another, on the ingredient labels of many different supplements, including several well-known, highly popular products. It’s often even spiced up through marketing efforts with catchy keywords like “the muscle-building blend” or the “mental focus blend”, for example.
But what exactly are proprietary blends and are they really all they’re chalked up to be? In this article, we’ll be going over everything you need to know about the subject, from what the downsides are to why you’re probably better off avoiding them altogether.
What Are Proprietary Blends?
A proprietary blend, which is sometimes also listed as proprietary formula, matrix, or complex, is a mixture of ingredients in which each individual ingredient in the blend is clearly listed on the ingredients label, while, the precise dosing information is not.
In other words, while it is disclosed what substances are in the blend, you don’t actually know how much of each ingredient is in the mix. So for instance, you may know that a particular prop blend contains 4 different ingredients for a total of 300 mg per serving, but what you don’t know is how that 300 mg actually breaks down.
Is the blend dominated by one substance, or are the different ingredients evenly distributed in the mixture? Ultimately, we don’t know because this information is not provided.
What Are The Downsides of Proprietary Blends?
In order to demonstrate some of the potential downsides that can come along with proprietary blends, let’s take a look at Onnit Alpha Brain, a popular nootropic supplement purported to support cognitive function and performance.
As you can see, Alpha Brain actually contains three different proprietary blends and over 10 different ingredients in total. At face value, the ingredients look relatively promising -- there are several different substances on this list that have been shown to enhance cognitive function in clinical and/or experimental trials.
The Effective Ingredients May Be Underdosed
But the catch is, while it may contain ingredients that are potentially effective, there ultimately may not be enough in a standard serving to elicit the desired effects.
So, for example, the “Onnit Flow Blend” contains L-tyrosine, a well-researched, natural substance that’s been shown to enhance several aspects of cognition, including things like working memory, creativity, and cognitive flexibility, in multiple randomized control trials.(1)(2)(3)(4)
However, it’s important to point out that in most studies that saw positive results, participants were given at least 300 mg of L-tyrosine per day.
If we look at the supplement facts for Alpha Brain, we see that the “Flow Blend” contains a total of 650 mg per serving. However, we don’t know how that total number of milligrams breaks down for each substance in the blend -- there are 4 different substances present, including L-tyrosine.
So are you getting at least 300 mg of L-tyrosine with a single serving of Alpha Brain? it is listed first on the ingredients list, which tells us that it makes up the highest percentage of the blend, but at the end of the day, you just don’t know.
Sure, it’s definitely possible that there’s 300 mg or more of L-tyrosine in the 650 mg “Flow Blend”, but then again, it’s also possible that there’s only 150 mg per serving, which again, wouldn’t be enough to experience the effects that have been observed in clinical and experimental trials.
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In that same “Flow Blend” as L-tyrosine is phosphatidylserine, another all-natural substance back by real clinical research. To date, several human-based trials have demonstrated that 200 - 300 mg of phosphatidylserine per day can significantly improve cognitive function, especially in those at risk of cognitive decline.(5)(6)
However, because it’s listed last on the list of ingredients in the 650 mg “Flow Blend”, we know that it’s very unlikely that there’s enough in there to see the kind of cognitive improvements that have been reported in the research. And even if there somehow was 200 mg present, it’d ultimately mean there’s no way there’s enough L-tyrosine.
And the same thing goes for oat extract (listed third in the “Flow Blend”). To date, most of the clinical trials that have demonstrated positive findings related to cognition involved dosages in the range of 1000 mg per day.(7)(8)
So, just based on the math (the total blend is only 650mg per serving), there’s just about no way a single dose of Alpha Brain contains enough oat extract to elicit any kind of measurable effects.
Some Ingredients May Be Misleading
Another issue with proprietary blends is that many of them may feature well-known, science-backed ingredients but the catch is that those ingredients aren’t necessarily effective when it comes to producing the particular effects being purported by the manufacturer.
So, if we turn back to our Onnit Alpha Brain example, it’s marketed as a supplement that can help with memory, focus, and concentration.
However, the issue is that L-theanine (the 2nd substance listed in the “Flow Blend”) has only been shown to enhance cognitive function when combined with caffeine, which isn’t in Alpha Brain (it’s marketed as a stimulant-free nootropic).(9)(10)
When it isn’t paired with caffeine, most findings suggest that L-theanine helps to improve sleep quality, which in some ways is the opposite of what you want when we’re talking about a supplement designed to improve things like your focus and concentration.(11)
Should You Take A Supplement That Contains a Proprietary Blend?
By now you’re likely wondering “Ok, so should I take a supplement with proprietary blends or not?” and the short answer is that it’s probably best to avoid them if you can.
Instead of going with a supplement that features a proprietary blend, where you can never be truly sure of exactly what you’re getting, it’s always best practice to go with a product where all of the ingredient and dosage information is clear.
The unfortunate reality is that many manufacturers ultimately use proprietary blends to cut costs; cheap (and often ineffective) ingredients make up the majority of many different proprietary blends, while more expensive ingredients often get underdosed to cut costs.
One of the main problems is that more effective ingredients tend to be more expensive, so if the manufacturer is looking to cut costs, chances are, you’re not going to be getting very much of the ingredients that have been shown to be most effective.
But if for some reason you do decide that you want to go with a proprietary blend, make sure you pay close attention to the ingredients label. You should not only be aware of whether or not the substances listed in the blend are known to be effective, but also at what dosages they should be taken.
At the end of the day, if you know the effective ingredients are likely underdosed -- e.g. they’re listed low on the ingredients list or you know by the total weight of the blend there’s not enough -- then it’s best to avoid that product altogether.
- “Effect of tyrosine supplementation on clinical and healthy populations under stress or cognitive demands—A review”Jongkees, B.J., Hommel, B., Kuhn, S., Colzato, L.S. Journal of Psychiatric Research. Nov. 2015.
- “Working memory reloaded: tyrosine repletes updating in the N-back task”Colzato, L.S., Jongkees, B.J., Sellaro, R., Hommel, B. Frontiers in Behavioral Science. Dec. 2013.
- “Food for thought: association between dietary tyrosine and cognitive performance in younger and older adults”Kuhn, S., Duzel, S., Colzato, L., Norman, K., Gallinat, J., Brandmaier, A.M., Lindenberger, U., Widman, K.F. Psychological Research. Dec. 2017.
- “Food for creativity: tyrosine promotes deep thinking”Colzato, L.S., de Haan, A.M., Hommel, B. Psychological Research. Sep. 2014.
- “Safety of Soy-derived Phosphatidylserine in Elderly People”Jorissen, B.L., Brouns, F., Van Boxtel, M.P.J., Riedel, W.J. Nutritional Neuroscience. 2002.
- “Phosphatidylserine for the Treatment of Pediatric Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”Bruton, A., Nauman, J., Hanes, D., Gard, M., Senders, A. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Feb. 2021.
- “Acute and Chronic Effects of Green Oat (Avena sativa) Extract on Cognitive Function and Mood during a Laboratory Stressor in Healthy Adults: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study in Healthy Humans”Kennedy, D.O., et al. Nutrients. May. 2020.
- “Chronic Effects of a Wild Green Oat Extract Supplementation on Cognitive Performance in Older Adults: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Trial”Wong, R.H.X., et al. Nutrients. May. 2012.
- “l-Theanine and caffeine improve task switching but not intersensory attention or subjective alertness” Einother, S.J., Martens, V.E., Rycroft, J.A., De Bruin, E.A. Appetite. Apr. 2010.
- “The combined effects of L-theanine and caffeine on cognitive performance and mood” Owen, G.N., Parnell, H., De Bruin, E.A., Rycroft, J.A. Nutritional Neuroscience. 2008.
- “The Effects of L-Theanine (Suntheanine) on Objective Sleep Quality in Boys with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): a Randomized, Double-blind, Placebo-controlled Clinical Trial” Lyon, M.R., Kapoor, M.P., Juneja, L.R. Alternative Medicine Reviews. 2011.