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Interview: “It’s all about the research”

Horphag Research, the company that has been manufacturing the French maritime pine bark extract Pycnogenol for 40 years, has been defined over that time by a commitment to continuous scientific research.

It’s why Pycnogenol remains one of the most well-researched branded ingredients in the world, with 135 clinical trials conducted and close to 400 scientific papers published to date.

The company sees this formidable body of research as its biggest asset – “our contribution to better health,” as vice president global sales and marketing, Sebastien Bornet, puts it. And it’s why at trade shows around the world – like Vitafoods Europe, where NPG recently caught up with Bornet, and Horphag Research’s director of scientific communications Dr Frank Schoenlau – the company’s executives are likely to be found discussing the findings of the latest study on Pycnogenol’s use in joint health, or cadiovascular health, or alleviating menopause symptoms.

For a company that, until now, has been known for a single product, scientific research is the crucial ingredient in its marketing. In a commercial environment where constant product innovation is the expectation (Vitafoods, as with most trade shows, has its NPD trails and multiple new product showcase features) Horphag Research has had to carve out its own distinctive place in the market.

Bornet explains: “We do have some marketing activities, of course. But I think for us what we do is closer to anti-marketing! We focus on the research, on the science – and then we try to educate our customers on how a product works and what the benefits can be to their consumers. Our ‘marketing’ started with really studying the product – what can it do, asking how does it work, what are the benefits – then setting out to prove the benefits, running the studies.

“We do have some marketing activities, of course. But I think for us what we do is closer to anti-marketing! We focus on the research, on the science”

“And, yes, we know there’s this incessant demand for the new. But that’s where the new comes from – it comes from continuous research. If you are Coca Cola, you’re not going to stop promoting the products. It’s the same for us from a scientific standpoint.”

One of Pycnogenol’s standout features is that it has clinically proven uses for multiple conditions – part of the reason why it is used in over 700 supplements, cosmetics and health products worldwide. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory, it stimulates generation of collagen and hyaluronic acid and helps with natural dilation of blood vessels by supporting production of nitric oxide. Key applications include helping maintain a healthy circulation, defending the skin against free-radicals, maintaining healthy joint mobility and flexibility, and strengthening retinal capillaries, so helping to maintain healthy eyesight.

Horphag Research’s deep knowledge of Pycnogenol’s method of action – something that for many ingredients remains a hypothesis – is invaluable, says Bornet. “Whatever the application, we are able to say to the consumer this is why Pycnogenol is helping.”

And the method of action is consistent across all applications. Comments Schoenlau: “In all the studies we do, it’s always muscle dilation and anti-inflammatory activity, and also some antioxidant activity – and you can absolutely assign it to more than one disorder at the same time.”

Bornet adds: “People do say, how can one ingredient help with so many conditions? – and this is the reason why. It has very solid properties that help in basic body functions. So if you take, for example, skin health as an application you’ll have antioxidant activity playing a role, anti-inflammatory activity playing a role, improved microcirculation. For the skin, these help rebuild elasticity, promote skin ‘glow’, control brown spots and other pigmentation issues and protect against photo-aging. But these same properties play an important role in a large range of conditions that respond to Pycnogenol.

“Pycnogenol’s all-in-one benefits are one of its most distinctive features. It’s a great marketing thing to create segmentation, but there’s no barrier in people’s bodies. A person may have problems with their eyes, and at the same time skin or joint problems, or be suffering muscle loss.”

“It’s a great marketing thing to create segmentation, but there’s no barrier in people’s bodies”

I ask Bornet and Schoenlau about current trends in final product use of Pyncogenol. Bornet tells me: “We’ve seen a lot of interesting trends in different health areas – one, for example, being cognitive function. And it’s not only elderly people interested in having some support for their memory. We now have studies on children and students, looking at memory. Traditionally it’s been the 50-60-plus group who have been interested in these benefits. But there’s a much broader demographic interested in these applications now.

“It’s also the case for skincare. We have been talking for many years about beauty-from-within and I think now people understand much better what an ingredient like Pycnogenol can do for your skin from the inside. We are moving beyond ideas about ‘covering’ to make yourself beautiful – as in make-up – towards having a healthy skin that looks beautiful.”

Finally we talk about a new ingredient that Horphag Research launched at Vitafoods – and which promptly scooped Ingredient of the Year for Sport & Energy at the NutraIngredients Awards 2017. Robuvit is a patented natural extract from French oak wood, rich in roburins and other flavonoids unique to oak wood.

Schoenlau explains that the development of Robuvit followed the “same rigorous, evidence-based approach consistently applied to Pyncogenol. We have been working on it for six years; working through sourcing, safety data and developing a standardization technique. And we had already conducted 10 full studies by the time we launched.”

Talking more widely about the company’s research-led approach, Bornet tells me: “Every time we do a study on Pycnogneol, or now Robuvit, we get excited about it. And every study we do, prompts a question. And when you answer that question you immediately want to pose ask another. That’s why journalists and the media are so interested in the product, because we can explain to them the mechanism of action, or new applications. It’s really endless. And I think that’s what’s so exciting.”

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About the Author

Jim Manson

Writer & Editor
Jim Manson is editor-in-chief of Diversified Communications UK‘s natural and organic publishing portfolio. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Times, and World Bank Urban Age

Articles by Jim Manson

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