New Life International makes some of our favorite fish foods! Can you tell us a little about the company? Has New Life International always made fish food—or did that come later on?
Actually, before New Life International was founded, New Life Exotic Fish was quite well-known within the African Cichlid industry as a premiere breeder of these freshwater fish. It’s something we still do. In 1992, Pablo and I decided to publish aquarium almanacs on Cichlids, which some of your readers might know: Cichlids – the Pictorial Guide. We formed New Life International for that purpose. They’re the books with the fish photos on the jet-black pages.
So, by 1994 we were working on our third aquarium publication (“The Marine Aquarium Companion”). In that book, marine fish were given ratings on ease of care in captivity — and a LOT were listed as difficult. This was over 20 years ago now, and the marine hobby isn’t as advanced as today in general. But water quality and chemistry had been receiving a lot of attention and improvements over the years. We felt nutrition problems were a number one contributor, and frankly fish food hadn’t seemed to have advanced at the same pace and not much emphasis had been placed on it (despite it’s central contribution to health for every organism). As a marine aquarium hobbyist, our fish often faced problems like Surgeonfish getting Lateral Line Disease and Fin Erosion, and Angels coming down with Hole in the Head disease — all of which we were sure were nutrition related disorders.
Plus, since he was the owner and main breeding guru of New Life Exotic fish, Pablo knew that the cichlids he sold were more faded after being removed from our ponds (and receiving Florida sunshine and being exposed to invertebrates, water veggies etc. and being kept indoors. Working on the book brought these simmering questions to the forefront. Thus, Pablo decided to see if we could formulate a food that would increase vitality, color and address these common nutrition-related problems.
So about a year after the publication of Marine Aquarium Companion, the first two formulas of New Life Spectrum — NLS Freshwater and NLS Marine — were born and hit store shelves!
New Life Spectrum foods are sold all around the world. Your headquarters is in the USA in Florida. Is that where New Life International produces the foods we all use or is that done elsewhere?
Our food is all produced on-site from our formula. Pablo is the head-chef for the foods and we both actively are with the crew working on the product and checking it. Our crew is great and has been with us for years.
How does New Life International test the efficacy of its foods?
Having a large fish farm definitely helps, as we feed the food to all of our stock. In addition, we have a fish room facility with various freshwater and marine fish always in the system. Plus, of course, we’re hobbyists so we regularly feed it to our own aquarium, which total almost 3,000 gallons of fish tanks between us. Finally, we have a brain-trust of aquarium import/export, retailers and hobbyists we test our food with on new formulations.
How long is it from an idea’s inception to it being on the market for, say, putting something like putting probiotics in your foods? I am imagining the New Life International team in white lab coats making cool discoveries then having to wait a while before sharing your findings with the rest of us.
Most of the ideas for our foods stem from having a frustration with our aquariums, or having a need we wish someone would fulfill with NLS quality. How long it takes to develop depends on the formula. Once we begin actually formulating, it’s a relatively quick process. But different foods often go through a process of doing a lot of research on the ingredients and practicality of manufacture. Sometimes, when we make an innovation on one food, it opens the door for others.
AlgaeMAX, for example, came about relatively quickly because we always knew what we wanted from an herbivore food and didn’t want to compromise it. When we developed our GelMIX foods, with their algae-based low-starch formulas, that cracked it for us. Probiotix likewise was something we had our eye on for a while, but didn’t want to do a coated food or one with not that many cultures. But the pellet making process of heat and pressure was a problem. After developing the DoughMIX, which can be formed cold, this gave us the key to that product. Probiotix took a long time though, because we had to get the culture formulation ideal, develop new extrusion processes and have each batch lab tested for survival rates. We began working on it around 2015 and it took until early this year
Since we’re on the subject of ingredients, can you tell us some random fan facts about what’s in your foods?
Sure! One fact is that our krill is MSC-certified sustainably harvested off the coast of Antarctica where they make sure to take only a small percentage of the krill biomass. Not only that, but they’re harvested in a very high-tech way that doesn’t use trawler nets. Instead, they use water vac tubes to pull in the krill along with the water and keep the water, alive and circulating until they’re ready to be processed in the hold to prevent having dead, degrading krill in the mix before it’s preserved. Which is by using nitrogen exclusion only. It means a much fresher product.
Actually, we’ve gone to suppliers for all our ingredients that either use no chemical preservatives, or only use a plant-based preservative called Naturox.
New Life Spectrum foods are used by Sea World San Diego, the California Academy of Sciences, and Bass Pro Shops. These institutions trust your foods above all others. How did you earn their trust?
We’re quite proud of the fact that the California Academy of Sciences and others not only trust our food, but they know the results are worth paying for, since we actually sell it to them even though they undoubtedly have options for free product. But apparently, keeping fish health and color up and mortality down via New Life is a calculation they thought worked out for them! I would say that we didn’t do much convincing but that the results speak for themselves. We’re very big on the idea that a food that produces health results beats marketing hype every time. That’s why we really emphasize the Spectrum Guarantee.
For other projects like the Oceanic Institute at the University of Hawaii (which has a great project to open-source develop domestic breeding techniques for in-demand marine aquarium fish) and the Frost Science Museum here in Miami, we do support them to help with their mission.
We’ve talked a lot about what makes your foods great. But I’m curious, without naming names, what are other fish food companies doing wrong?
Thanks for not making us name names, we’re not big on smack talk! In general, it’s the willingness to put the money into the ingredients rather than a fancy corporate office or big VP salaries. We put a far higher percentage of our sales price into our ingredients than is typical, considered industry standard or even recommended. And that’s possible because we run efficiently and don’t have a lot of debt. I simply don’t think a lot of companies would be able or willing to put as much into the materials as NLS — and would give in to temptation to make little compromises to save. But the dirty secret is that a whole bunch of small shortcuts that individually perhaps aren’t a problem become noticeable if you keep making those choices.
You can have the philosophy of “we’re a company who is in business to make revenue, and we do that through “x” product (in this case fish food)”. Or you can be a company that says, “we make fish food — and by doing that we make revenue”. The difference is subtle, but in one the money is first and the product follows and in the other the product is first. For us product is first and it’s the main key to your success. A lot of companies say it that, but I think it makes a difference if you believe it. When we got started 20-plus years ago, we knew NLS had to be so much better it couldn’t be a contest, or the giant companies would crush us. So that philosophy has worked for us, and we see no reason to change it.
The New Life International YouTube channel was recently invigorated by the addition of host Hilary Jaffe. Some of your videos have a crazy amount of views! Hobbyists are really eating them up. Who is Hilary?
Thanks! Hilary is really great and is a big part of our communications push. If someone comments on those videos or on social media, they’re very likely talking to her. We brought her on board because we really came to the conclusion that we were great at making fish food, but not so great at communicating how good we are at making fish food.
Hilary really fits our brand because we believe in marketing through education, and she’s a born educator. She came to our attention when she met us at MACNA, and she had an educational page on Facebook called Waterlogg’d. She has a degree in Marine Biology from Carolina Coastal University, has worked for the Nevada Fish and Wildlife Department as well as been an aquarium tech and curator in an aquarium store. Plus she’s a hobbyist. So she was the perfect fit.
It was very important for us that whoever we brought on-board as the ‘face’ of NLS not be just a pretty face or ‘spokesmodel’ but have actual knowledge and passion for the hobby. Hilary fit the bill. And is a really nice person to boot.
I see that New Life International is exhibiting at the Marine Aquarium Conference of North America (MACNA) next month in Las Vegas. What do you like most about doing events like this?
Yep. And we plan to increase our presence at consumer shows in the near future. As a manufacturer, I don’t get to interact directly with our consumers on a daily basis. It’s not like owning a shop or an aquarium maintenance business. Some of the big industry trade shows are awesome, but they’re geared toward business-people. Interacting with enthusiasts really recharges our batteries, and re-orients us to who we’re making this stuff for — hobbyists and their aquarium companions. Plus, we often get a lot of good ideas and feedback — both positive and what we can improve — from these shows.
It’s often said we should feed our fish a mixed diet. Is this just effective marketing, or are pellets enough for some fish? There are flakes, pellets, powdered foods, soaks and supplements, the list goes on. Are we just anthropomorphizing, spending unnecessary money and putting unnecessary waste into our aquariums?
The most effective marketing is producing results, in our opinion. So yes, pellets really are enough. We’re so confident in that that we offer the Spectrum Guarantee that if for the first time you feed NLS pellets only, in 30 days you’ll see increased health, color and vitality — as well as alleviating malnutrition related problems like nutrition-related lateral line, head or fin erosion.
If a food contains the necessary protein, fat, vegetable matter, vitamin, minerals and trace elements in a single package and in good proportions, then the variety is built into the pellet itself. A lot of it is more concentrated than in natural sources. Hobbyists have to remember that in the ocean or lakes, fish forage for many more hours per day so that even if an individual zooplankton or plant doesn’t have extremely high nutrient density it’s no problem. But we feed our fish so much less volume and worry about their waste — so nutrient sources for the open waters just aren’t enough.
A lot of the belief in rotation or supplementing is a holdover from an era when fish foods genuinely weren’t very complete, and you had to supplement or rotate brands to fill-in the gaps. One of the things we’re proud of is that 20+ years ago, we led the charge into premium quality fish foods that weren’t oriented to the lowest-common-denominator ‘this is just for fish’ approach and took nutrition seriously. So nowadays, with the right food — and we think NLS is the right food — it’s not needed or even beneficial.
We are anthromorphizing the fish when the concern is that they’ll ‘get tired’ of a certain food. I’ve heard the argument a lot that “wouldn’t I get tired of eating the same thing every day”? Yes, I would. But fish don’t — they’re creatures of habit and like routine in food. In fact, varying it to much can often cause them to not eat. Or giving them things that taste really good but are less nutrient-rich can then put them off pellets. At the risk of anthromorphizing myself — it’s like giving kids a choice of chocolate cake or grilled chicken and asparagus.
What new trends in the aquarium hobby excite you? Are there any new products or services you’ve tried recently that surprised and/or delighted you?
Personally, the increasing viability of domestically raised marine aquarium fish is something that really excites me. It’s in it’s infancy for a lot of varieties, but on the horizon I can see that being a big change. And one that’s necessary due to increasing fisheries regulations worldwide. I also think that overall it’s desirable because it does relieve collection pressure and tank-raised specimens are often better adapted. As long as breeders are careful about managing their genetic lines for health. It’s one of the reasons we are so supportive of the Oceanic Institute’s project.
Overall, the increasing presence of innovative technology like reef-controllers used to manage tanks is something interesting. It brings in the new generations, and also makes simulating an ocean in a teacup (which is what aquariums are) ever more viable.