Conversation with Eric Ciappio, PhD, RD, Strategic Development Manager Nutrition Science Team Balchem

Interview by Sheldon Baker

 

Eric Ciappio, PhD, RD, is the strategic development manager, Nutrition Science, at Balchem, where he works to support various commercial teams with scientific information to support substantiated messaging. Ciappio was previously affiliated with multiple brands and ingredient suppliers in the dietary supplement industry including Wyeth Consumer Healthcare, DSM Nutritional Products, and IFF Health. He holds a PhD in biochemical and molecular nutrition from Tufts University and is a Registered Dietitian. (Adv Mind Body Med. 2023;37(4):26-29.)

 

Sheldon Baker is an InnoVision contributing editor. His freelance editorial content can also be found in several lifestyle publications, and as CEO of Baker Dillon Group LLC, he has created numerous brand marketing communications and public relations campaigns for health and wellness organizations. Contact him at [email protected].

 

 

Advances in Mind-Body Medince (Advances): Balchem is a global company headquartered in New Jersey with worldwide manufacturing sites, R&D centers and over a thousand employees globally. As an organization gets larger, sometimes there’s a tendency for the institution to dampen any inspiration. How does Balchem keep this from happening?

 

Eric Ciappio, PhD, RD: That’s a really good question, and it’s a risk for any organization when it gets larger. The recent acquisitions of Bergstrom Nutrition and Kappa Bioscience have been a major boost for our Human Nutrition and Health segment, expanding our range with top products like OptiMSM® and K2VITAL®. OptiMSM® is a bioavailable source of sulfur nutritionally supporting joint health, performance, and healthy skin, hair, and nails, while K2VITAL® is an essential vitamin K2 directing free calcium away from the arteries, helping bind calcium to the bone. This has injected fresh perspectives into our team and business strategies, particularly in our minerals and nutrients portfolio. Overall, these changes have positively addressed key challenges. They have fostered renewed inspiration and focus in our organization.

 

Advances: What is also remarkable is that Balchem for the third consecutive year was named one of America’s most responsible companies by Newsweek and Statista, a leading statistics portal. That’s quite impressive.

 

Dr. Ciappio: Yes. We take corporate social responsibility very seriously. As a company committed to making the world a healthier place, we are thrilled to be included on Newsweek’s list of America’s Most Responsible Companies. This honor reflects our progress in driving a culture of responsibility and our commitment to operating with excellence as strong stewards of the planet and our stakeholders, while providing innovative solutions for the health and nutritional needs of the world.

 

Advances: We’ll get into branded ingredients, but can you first address some of your core technologies?

 

Dr. Ciappio: If you look at Balchem overall, we’re made up of three business segments, Human Nutrition and Health, Animal Nutrition and Health, and Specialty Products. Many of our core technologies overlap in our business segments. This includes choline, chelated minerals, and encapsulation. Our brand Vitacholine® highlights our leadership in choline, essential for animal and human health. As pioneers in chelated mineral research, we provide a unique line of mineral products, called Albion® minerals, that are specially formulated for enhanced bioavailability, solubility, and tolerability. Third, Balchem’s proprietary microencapsulation process ensures high-quality, stable ingredients for both human and animal applications.

 

Advances: Speaking of technologies, you have something called Trendish™ which I think is interesting. How does that work in terms of your customer relations?

 

Dr. Ciappio: Trendish is a great initiative from our marketing team which connects consumer insights with our technologies. They have conducted a lot of market research to identify specific consumer profiles to help guide how our customers can use our products to address consumer needs and trends. Trendish is a fantastic program and I hope to see it continue in the future.

 

Advances: Let’s drill down a little more with the Albion® Minerals brand. What does that include?

 

Dr. Ciappio: Our Albion® Minerals brand is our flagship line of minerals that includes 20 specific SKUs of different minerals, ranging from iron, calcium, magnesium, and zinc to trace minerals such as selenium, copper, potassium, boron, and many others.

If I could describe the benefits of our chelated minerals in a nutshell, number one would be bioavailability, or greater absorption. They work by reducing the interaction with so-called anti-nutrients in food, compounds like phytase and oxalates, which can bind to minerals in the diet and ultimately reduce mineral absorption. Our chelated forms are less likely to interact with those, leading to greater absorption.

Second is greater tolerability. Inorganic minerals like ferrous sulfate can lead to side effects, like GI upset or diarrhea. However, our materials have been shown in clinical trials to have a lower risk of G.I. adverse events. For example, ferrous bisglycinate, the iron form used in our Ferrochel® material, has been shown in a recent 2023 meta-analysis to be 64 percent less likely to lead to adverse G.I. events compared to other iron salts in pregnant women. And from an application standpoint, they offer greater solubility, so chelated minerals tend to work really well in beverage formats and sachet-stick packs. In fact, ferrous bisglycinate was listed by the World Health Organization as being the preferred iron fortificant for fluid milk, soft drink, and juice applications due to its solubility and enhanced bioavailability, particularly in the presence of phytates. Lastly, we have a category called Taste-Free products. The benefit there is fairly obvious. No one wants beverage-based products that don’t taste good. Our Taste-Free line of products is beneficial, not only for formulators, but also for consumers to get essential nutrition.

 

Advances: You touched on VitaCholine®, which you refer to as a chief source of choline and is one of your leading ingredients.

 

Dr. Ciappio: VitaCholine® is a really fantastic product. Choline is an essential nutrient, just like vitamin C or vitamin D. It does have a DRI value, which was set by the Institute of Medicine in 1998. Choline is incredibly important for brain and liver health. Our VitaCholine® material brand is what has been used in many clinical trials, particularly for pregnant women. Several of the clinical trials were published in the last few years since I joined Balchem. These trials showed that expecting mothers who consumed higher amounts of VitaCholine® during pregnancy had a number of specific benefits. Mothers who supplemented with higher amounts of VitaCholine® were shown to improve the cognitive function of their infant children within the first year of life, and when the researchers follow up with those same children at age seven, the cognitive health benefits persisted, just from the effect of mothers taking choline during pregnancy. Plus, supplementing VitaCholine® and DHA together was shown to significantly increase DHA status better than DHA alone, due to the unique metabolic relationship these two nutrients share.  I am so proud to be part of a company that supports these clinical trials that have been showing the benefits of choline for maternal and child health.

 

Advances: Microencapsulation is another area of expertise.

 

Dr. Ciappio: Our microencapsulates are tailored for use in our customer’s specific products. Whether in baking, confectionery, meat, or other applications, Balchem has the right microencapsulated ingredient that consistently controls the delivery point of the active ingredient and delivers exactly as expected, so it’s protected throughout the system’s demands. An example is VitaShure®. VitaShure® contains our encapsulation technology which is used for specific functional ingredients, such as caffeine and vitamin C. We use some of that encapsulation technology for VitaCholine® materials as well. There are two specific advantages to that. One is limiting the interaction with the overall food matrix. So, in something like a bar, for example, you might not want the bitter taste of caffeine, and VitaShure® can help limit that. Second, it can help to deliver a sustained release profile, making it an excellent option for those looking to incorporate some of these products and have a differentiated product spin and application benefit.

 

Advances: Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) and vitamin K2 are recent additions to Balchem. Briefly discuss those ingredients.

 

Dr. Ciappio: I’ll start with OptiMSM® which is a bioavailable form of sulfur and has a lot of important jobs. Structurally, it helps make up lots of important compounds within the body. Things like keratin sulfate, for example, or chondroitin sulfate, or glutathione, all important compounds within the body that are important for the structure of both the joints and skin. Functionally, the glutathione system is the backbone of the body’s antioxidant defense system, and the sulfur in glutathione is what my graduate school biochemistry teacher would call the business end of the molecule, meaning that it is critical for glutathione’s function. Supplementation with MSM has shown to provide several benefits across multiple areas. For example, for joint health, clinical trial data shows improvements in joint comfort and function. For beauty from within, we see improvements in endpoints like skin elasticity and skin hydration. For athletes, MSM supplementation has been shown to support recovery by reducing oxidative stress after exercise. Lots of important benefits to help support healthy longevity and aging overall.

Our K2VITAL® vitamin K2 product is another recent addition to the family and is an impressive product. Vitamin K2 is a unique form of vitamin K which is very well absorbed, especially if it is the all-trans K2-MK7 form. And vitamin K2’s job overall is to help support calcium metabolism. What that means is moving calcium away from the spot where it shouldn’t be in soft issues, and making sure that it arrives where we want it, in the bones. It is important in all live stages, activating vitamin K-dependent proteins required in bone metabolism and arterial functions supporting healthy circulation.

The science team from Kappa Bioscience is really fantastic. Prior to the acquisition, they had a clinical pipeline with approximately 12 ongoing clinical trials. That is incredibly impressive. That’s now about half of our overall clinical trial portfolio.  They’ve made significant investments in science, and for me as a nutrition scientist that is something I really appreciate. I look forward to seeing where that product is going in the next five years. In addition to the great ingredients, we have investments in varying areas for heart health and sports performance.

 

Advances: Would you say that having so many areas of ingredients and product categories plus being global adds up to Balchem’s competitive advantage?

 

Dr. Ciappio: Absolutely. What I mean is we’ve got lots of different options to help formulators and their brands develop various new products within our organization, which has human, plant, and animal nutrition divisions. We’ve got options to service different areas under one roof. Our vision for expanding these capabilities is to be a one-stop shop and be able to service all manufacturing needs of our US customers as well as those globally looking to expand beyond their geographical area. We also have the infrastructure and people available in different regions to help support customers as they expand. It’s of critical importance to us.

 

Advances: You may have answered just now and responded earlier as to where you felt the most significant growth would be in the next few years.

 

Dr. Ciappio: Our strategy centers on three key objectives. First, we aim to increase health benefit awareness through researching certain key ingredients, recognizing the vast potential for growth in this area. Second, we’re focusing on expanding our global presence, being closer to our customers around the globe. Lastly, we are innovating to grow. These pillars guide our ongoing mission to enhance our offerings and services. Third is supply chain optimization. We have a fantastic supply chain team working around the clock to ensure everything gets to where it needs to be, and that’s no small feat. Performing and serving our customers better is an ongoing mission and of critical importance to Balchem. Furthermore, we want to make our customers aware of our mission.

 

Advances: Does Balchem work with pharmaceutical companies and have any involvement with the health professional category?

 

Dr. Ciappio: As part of the Nutrition Science team, I’ve made a concerted effort to engage with practitioners and scientists. We have a healthy appetite for connecting with nutritionists as well as healthcare professionals to raise awareness of nutrients and their importance. We’re doing it through professional industry events. For the first time ever, we exhibited at ACOG, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, as well as at the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM). showcasing all the data we’ve generated in the past few years in the great clinicals on VitaCholine® in expecting moms. We want to make sure that healthcare professionals get an opportunity to learn about this research as often they aren’t exposed to such nutrition information. We’re proud to be one of the few nutrition-focused companies that exhibit and take part in these events. Furthermore, we have worked with our friends at the Council for Responsible Nutrition and supported work they did with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to raise awareness of the science behind products like creatine among dietitians. We are trying to engage more because we know there is a gap between nutrition-related clinical information and what healthcare practitioners see come across their desk. We want to make sure, as best as possible, that health professionals understand the benefits of the good nutrition our products provide. Investing in research and education is incredibly important. It’s part of our push to be more involved with physician education and raise awareness.

 

Advances: I am aware that community involvement is also important to Balchem.

 

Dr. Ciappio: Over the years we’ve had several corporate social responsibility programs. Our Balchem Helping Hands program is a volunteer engagement effort led by our corporate team. Taking our health professional involvement further, 2023 brought about a new partnership with the American Nutrition Association, and we are working with them to develop materials for healthcare practitioners to learn about the latest initiatives within the nutrition category. We also supported a symposium at the University of North Carolina Nutrition Research Institute called Future Directions in Choline, featuring more than a dozen of the world’s leading choline nutrition experts speaking about choline’s role in everything from pregnancy and lactation to adult brain and liver health. We are committed to being active participants in the nutrition community to help bring these advances to the consumer marketplace to support public health.