A proactive mission: NOW Foods’ Sparks plant rolls to a health-conscious beat

Alyson spreads newly made flax oil gel caps over drying trays at the NOW Foods manufacturing and distribution center in Sparks.

Alyson spreads newly made flax oil gel caps over drying trays at the NOW Foods manufacturing and distribution center in Sparks.

NOW Foods is in the pre-healthcare business.

The company, with a massive manufacturing-on-one-side, distribution-on-the-other facility in Sparks, sees its mission as the health end of health care.

“We’re part of the solution to the health-care issue,” said Jim Emme, CEO of NOW Foods based in suburban Chicago with its other major operation in Northern Nevada.

The Sparks site, covering 170,000 square feet, proves his point by making vitamin and supplement pills, capsules and gel tabs as well as packaging health-conscious natural foods, primarily a wide array of nuts.

Then there’s the packaging of health aids, notably oils, creams and other needs, alongside already-made natural foods from syrups to cooking oils.

That’s just on one side of the building along Vista Boulevard in Sparks. The other half is the distribution end, where several loaded trucks a day depart for all points in the West and beyond, including overseas, particularly along the Pacific Rim.

“Our philosophy is to have a healthy lifestyle, you need basic nutrition, and natural products can help,” Emme said. “Our products alone can’t solve problems, but they can help people hit their nutritional goals.”

From organic foods and snacks to gluten-free baking mixes, more than 1,700 different and different-sized products take to the conveyor belts each day.

Before that, in the manufacturing half of the building, gowned and gloved workers prepare dry mixes for pounding into pills. Others guide rolls of jell into machines that encase it in gelatin coating. Others run machinery that fills tiny capsules and seals them shut.

There’s also a tent-enclosed sampling area where all raw materials are tested, and a half-dozen labs where staff chemists work. And all assembly lines have metal detectors to capture even minute fragments that can find their way into products.

It’s all in the name of health via vitamins, minerals and other supplements.

As Emme sees it, NOW Foods’ mission is to get ahead of conventional medicine, especially when it comes to Millennials who have many decades of life ahead of them.

“There’s a place for allopathic medicine, but it’s more reactive,” Emme said. “We’re more in a position of preventive. We need to hit people in their 20s and 30s. We could reduce a lot of health issues by training people when they’re young.

“Certainly there’s a lot of interest with baby boomers, but Millennials get it, “he said. “With all the information out there now, they really get it.” When NOW Foods’ products leave the warehouse, they typically head for health-based retailers. In the U.S., that can be such stores as Whole Foods and Vitamin Connection outlets, he said.

NOW Foods’ roots date back more than a half-century to Elmhurst, Ill., where Elwood Richard, a physical chemist, started a small chain of health food stores called Health House.

The NOW Foods name was established in 1968 and its retail stores adopted the name The Fruitful Yield, which still operates at a dozen locations in the Chicago area.

The company, which is still owned by the Richard family, looked to expand to the West in 2003 and opened a 23,000-square-foot shipping facility in Sparks.

Nine years later, NOW Foods moved into its much larger facility on Vista Boulevard that serves as a key cog in a companywide $500 million-a-year operation.

There, General Manager Tom Riddle oversees the daily operations performed by a staff of 300 workers from the manufacturing corridors and its blend of scents and aromas to the cavernous distribution room with its network of conveyor belts that rise, via a spiral conveyor, to the out-going level.

“To me, we’re the biggest company nobody knows about,” Riddle said.

As for the focus on preventive health, the company practices what it preaches, Riddle said, including not selling gummy-textured vitamins because of the issue of sugar.

“We can’t find one that tastes good and doesn’t have a lot of sugar,” he said.

In addition, the staff cafeteria’s vending machines offer no soda, but the company does provide workers with organic fruits every Wednesday.

Emme said NOW Health Group Inc. has seen double-digit growth over the past three years, much of it from its overseas markets.

He said the key to success is a quality product.

“We’ve got $40 million worth of analytical equipment in Sparks,” he said. “If we don’t make that a priority, we’re not going to assure what people see on the ingredient label is actually in the product.”

And, he said, his consistent message is that NOW Foods’ products are a help, not a solution, to good health.

“We’re not a magic bullet. Our products alone don’t solve problems,” he said. “But our products, with a healthier lifestyle, can help prevent problems. We are part of the solution.”


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