Evidence Based Supplements With Dr. Gordon Chang
By: Jamie Bussin
Since its inception Dr. Gordon Chang has been a regular guest on The Tonic Talk Show/Podcast. And it is safe to say that he is our most popular guest; a true fan favourite. A large part of that is because his information is science-grounded. Gordon holds a PhD in Physiology and Biomedical Engineering from the University of Toronto. He also has 2 years of postdoctoral experience in clinical biochemistry looking at free radicals and antioxidants. He has published over 20 peer-reviewed articles and conference proceedings. He currently owns and operates Omega Alpha® Pharmaceuticals Inc., a manufacturer of nutritional supplements for people, horses, cats and dogs. It is a manufacturer committed to the production of products that are efficacious, safe and of superior quality. All of this lends to his gravitas and credibility.
The other reason why Gordon’s interviews resonate with listeners is his matter-of-fact approach. Over all the many interviews, and there are many, I’ve never heard a hyperbolic word come out of his mouth. It comes from not only his educational background but also his many years of experience. This puts him in a different position from many others in the industry.
Over 32 years ago, as a young medical scientist in Ontario, Gordon was formulating and concentrating on natural herbal supplements for a unique new company that would prove to be in the right place at the right time. He named it Omega Alpha® Pharmaceuticals. Dr. Chang had completed his post-doctoral work and had started a career in private label pharmaceuticals when he saw an interest in natural products “taking off” in health and wellness communities. This was the beginning of his journey.
TT: Gordon, how did you get started?
GC: We started Omega Alpha Pharmaceuticals with the idea of manufacturing over-the-counter pharmaceutical products. So, we jumped through the hoops to get a pharmaceutical manufacturing license. We quickly realized that we did not have enough contacts to get a lot of private label contracts. Then, I kept wondering and thinking to myself, what else can I do with the pharmaceutical plant? At that point, I noticed that there was an increased interest in natural products and supplements and also the quality of the products. However, there were always doubts by the general population as there were no regulations in the natural product industry in Canada at that time (1992). I decided at that moment to pivot our attention to natural products. We had a licensed and government-inspected pharmaceutical plant, and I had a PhD in the medical sciences (Physiology). My scientific background allowed Omega Alpha Pharmaceuticals to formulate efficacious products based on sound scientific principles. I decided to apply these advantages to the manufacture and sale of natural products. Omega Alpha Pharmaceuticals was unique in applying pharmaceutical standards to the manufacture of natural products. At that time many people suggested that we change our name from Omega Alpha Pharmaceuticals to Omega Alpha Herbals or Naturals. I resisted these suggestions because I felt that it was important to have a name that inspired trust in the quality and efficacy of the finished product that was manufactured under pharmaceutical standards. Therefore, our mission statement was, and still is “to produce quality and efficacious natural products using sound scientific principles both in formulation and manufacturing.
TT: You hold a PhD in Physiology and Biomedical Engineering from the University of Toronto. You also have 2 years of postdoctoral experience in clinical biochemistry looking at free radicals and antioxidants. So, would you say, you were actually interested in the natural approach to healing the body before you started your company? Where did that come from?
GC: My basic training was in medical sciences but I grew up in a society where traditional herbal medicine played a big role in health, both in prevention and treatment. I saw with my own eyes how effective herbs were in the treatment and prevention of many ailments. As a scientist, I understood the underlying basis of efficacy such as the chemistry, the basic mechanisms of action and the importance of dosage. Today, many people only believe in the pharmaceutical approach to medicine. Whilst the pharmaceutical approach has made great strides, sometimes the side effects are greater than the ailment being treated. Many ailments can be treated with herbs quite effectively without major side effects. I guess the take home message is that there is a time and a place for every type of treatment approach. I also believe that prevention is better than cure but prevention is a difficult message when you have no major health issues. Nowadays, we have seen that supplementation is being used for better health strategies and prevention.
TT: So family has its roots in who you are and what you have developed today.
GC: Yes, I would say so. I’m the eldest of 5 siblings; we came from a modest grocery store business in Trinidad, where we all helped out in the family store with our parents – serving customers, stacking shelves, cleaning etc. My sister still runs the business with her family. Growing up in such an environment instilled the entrepreneurial spirit in me, otherwise I probably would have been quite happy working as a tenured University Professor as many of my friends.
TT: Sounds like you learned to juggle many hats quite young, working in a retail environment.
GC: I think I have a great amount of respect for the independent retailers and small business folks; they are at the heart of my own business. They have helped us to grow, and I feel I understand them because I have walked in their shoes in my younger days.
TT: So, what is your essence? Who are you?
GC: Well, I still wear many hats, but my family comes first so; I’m a son, brother, husband, father and I’m a grandad now. I’m also the CEO of my company here in Toronto. Omega Alpha has grown over the last 30 plus years to manufacture and supply supplements for people, dogs, cats and horses. Plus, I have created a naturopathic and veterinary brand as well.
TT: How did you end up creating supplements for dogs and cats?
GC: We launched an equine supplement line over 20 years ago. The equine line proved to be very popular with the equine crowd but what was happening at that time was that all these people who owned and rode horses also had dogs and cats. So, I got phone calls from customers asking questions like, ‘can we use this on our cats?’ or ‘can we use this on our dogs?’ because they were seeing these great results in their horses. The pet products developed after the equine product line had been out for a number of years. We were repeatedly asked for the product line, so I decided to launch a pet line. Canadians treat their pets like family, so we started off with products such as detoxification for pets, as well as focusing on joint health, mobility issues, calmers and gut health using probiotics and botanicals. You can find the Omega Alpha® brand of pet supplements in pet stores, equine tack stores and independent retailers in the natural health industry.
TT: Do you have pets now?
GC: No, no, I’m too busy, it wouldn’t be fair to any pets, as I just don’t have the time. Pets are a responsibility that require your attention, love and care. I love that our customers realize this and we see them doing more for their horses, dogs or cats than even themselves. I did grow up with our family’s German shepherds as a kid, so I know how much work is involved. Also, most of my management team have dogs, cats or horses, so I get lots of dog stories daily, from them and also from our very thankful pet parent customers.
TT: So with different product lines for humans and pets, I would assume different Canadian government regulators, laws and regulations. How do you manage this in today’s industry and with all the changes coming as well?
GC: We follow the human-grade standards for all of our raw materials, product verifications, laboratory testing, certifications and standards. All brands follow the human manufacturing standards through meeting GMP standards and Health Canada regulatory standard processes. We use whole, non-GMO and organic ingredients for botanical verification. These measures also extend to Omega Alpha’s equine and pet brands, never veering away from using the same quality raw materials for animal supplements.
TT: Can you elaborate on “human-grade standards”?
GC: Meeting human-grade standards make Omega Alpha’s production unique, as we use the same equipment and maintain the same standards. One resource we use is HPLC (high pressure liquid chromatography), a powerful machine used in analytical chemistry to separate, identify and quantify each component in a mixture. Using this machine, we have been able to build a unique database which allows us to positively identify all of the herbs that we use in our products from batch to batch. We also have our on-site laboratories; we test all ingredients for heavy metal and pesticide contamination as per Health Canada Standards.
TT: Why are human grade standards so important?
GC: Using these standards can assure detection of trace minerals to minute levels, which has built confidence in consumers who are competitive athletes. We check our herbs and nothing falls through any checklist for banned substances. Through liquid extraction, the efficacy of an herb or herbal formula can be concentrated and controlled. Liquid herbal extracts are more efficacious than powdered herbs. An example from everyday life to illustrate this point is coffee. Everyone who drinks coffee gets a quick caffeine hit; however if I give you coffee grounds to chew on, you’ll never get that caffeine hit, you won’t digest it the same way as brewing (extracting) the coffee so all the body has to do is absorb the caffeine. The advantage of liquid extracts is getting a concentrate to a level high enough to be effective. Omega Alpha manufactures mainly herbal formulations because many herbs work by different mechanisms to produce the same effect and therefore a judicious combination of herbs maximizes the beneficial effects on the body.
TT: Over the last 30 years have you seen the industry change much?
GC: Yes, I was a bit of a cowboy 30 years ago when Omega Alpha started doing business. We weren’t in the drug or food categories but in-between with herbal remedies. Over the years, Health Canada started a regulatory process which I had no problem with, it just meant that all of the supplement manufacturers had to comply with their program. It was fair and the industry has grown and is well respected as a whole globally. The regulations also inspired more trust amongst the general public thereby attracting more users to the category.
TT: Speaking of regulations; what are your thoughts on Health Canada’s recent proposals?
GC: The government intends to implement new user fees for regulatory activities which is called cost recovery; this is above the cost we already have paid to get our products regulated and approved for the market. They want to collect fees for services they provide for regulatory activities like product evaluation, site licenses and annual renewal fees which I’m not opposed to in principle but the establishment fee they are asking for, is exorbitant and they are doing this per product. For the majority of small supplement companies, this will mean downsizing product offerings and/or increasing pricing.
TT: Okay that’s the regulator aspect, what about from customers, what has changed?
GC: A lot of the customers are wanting predominantly vegan products, free from gluten, wheat, dairy, egg, soy and sugar. We are known for our unique highly absorbable liquid formulations like the Liver Flush, Lung Flush and Kidney Flush but we also have powder complexes and vegan capsule formulas. So, we are more competitive with other brands.
TT: Are you working on anything new you can tell us about?
GC: Last year, we launched a line of concentrated mushroom extracts which has taken off nicely. Raw mushrooms in general are harder for our normal digestion pathways to liberate the important compounds, so for maximum activity and also because liquids are easier for the body to utilize and absorb, we did these as extracts. This helps to deliver the non-denatured active ingredients in mushrooms via a water-based extract which is traditional practice. Mushroom extraction where production uses pressure, temperature, and the surface area of raw materials (ground up fruiting bodies) results in a higher content of active ingredients and for better immunomodulating properties.
TT: What does the future hold for you and your company?
GC: Our staff has also grown in number and I’m very proud of our teams’ contributions in adapting to the changes for production standards, education, marketing and supporting the health food industry in general. I’m a science type and love to educate and work with others in the natural health industry. Omega Alpha is a small company but it’s big on delivering unique formulations. I really like the ideology and knowledge of traditional medicine but have married it through science and research with the nutraceutical and efficacy of safe ingredients. At the end of the day, I’m about results and supporting our customers.
Dr. Gordon Chang is the owner and operator of Omega Alpha® Pharmaceuticals Inc., a manufacturer of nutritional supplements for people, horses, cats and dogs. For more information please visit Omegaalpha.com