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What is a Spec Sheet and Why You Should Ask for One

How carefully do you read the nutrition label of each food item you buy? Behind each of the ingredients, percentages, serving sizes, and daily values is an even more detailed list of specifications.

Think about a blueberry muffin made by a local bakery. Every ingredient, from flour and sugar to blueberries, has a spec sheet that contains all sorts of useful information. Businesses use that information to ensure the quality and consistency in their foods, so that blueberry muffin tastes just as good every time you buy it.

If your business is looking for the right ingredients to use, a spec sheet is one of the most important things your business should ask for before approaching ingredient suppliers

In this article, we’ll cover the 4 components of a food spec sheet, along with each of the reasons why you should use a spec sheet. Finally, we’ll share a ingredient specification template that you can use for your own business if you’re wondering how to make a product spec sheet for yourself.

What is an ingredient spec sheet?

In this section, we’ll give you a high-level overview of spec sheets. These details vary by supplier, but most spec sheets for ingredients have the same 4 categories. Each time your write a product specification, make sure to include these:  

  • General information
  • Product characteristics
  • Quality and testing information
  • Packaging information

Basically, if you think about the whole process needed to move an ingredient from farm to shelf, you’ll have a good sense for those categories.

If someone offers a spec sheet that’s missing details in any of those categories, just ask them to provide it.

General Information 

At the top of the ingredient spec sheet you’ll find the name and branding of the supplier, along with the product name, ingredients and their descriptions. Some spec sheets also include visual representations of the final product. 

This is especially important when getting genus information for produce.

Product characteristics 

Next, a spec sheet for ingredients lists all their physical properties and characteristics. That includes color, basic appearance, mesh size, odor, attributes, and other technical specs.

Quality & testing information 

There’s no question that quality tests matter a lot to suppliers. An ingredient spec sheet should include all certifications and other safety information: heavy metal testing, residues and contaminants, microbiological properties, any USDA food certifications, and more.

Packaging info 

Next, you’ll find the information needed to plan ahead. Think about how many cases or pallets you’ll need to purchase at a time, how long the food will stay fresh and other details: 

  • Pack sizes
  • Shelf life
  • Labeling
  • Storage information

Note that using a smaller pack size can often improve the shelf life of the product. This information can have major implications on the cost of freight and warehousing capacity at your manufacturing facility.

Keep in mind!!

While spec sheets usually contain all 4 of these categories, they are often proprietary to each supplier. They may contain confidential info, especially for specialty flavors and custom ingredient solutions, so make sure to check with your supplier before sharing any information with your co-packer or additional  suppliers. Any details on a spec sheet for ingredients should be considered private unless you have explicit permission to share with other suppliers or partners.

Why do you need a spec sheet? 

If you think about it, operating without a spec sheet for each ingredient is like making a recipe with a blindfold on. Imagine trying to make those blueberry muffins when each batch of blueberries is a different size and level of sweetness – or from an entirely different berry patch.

Those are details that can make a huge difference in your final product. The reasons why you need a spec sheet are simple:

  • Food safety and quality control
  • Comparing ingredients
  • Assessing the quality of those ingredients
  • Creating specificity with suppliers 
  • Creating consistency when looking for substitutes
  • Staying on good terms with your co-packers

We’ll cover each of those in more detail next. Toward the end of the article, we’ll share an ingredient spec sheet template that you can use for your own business.

Food safety and quality control

One of the most important reasons for keeping a clear product specification is to ensure the quality and safety of your food. Each ingredient should follow proper procedures so the final product is consistent and healthy.

Not all ingredients are created equal

An ingredient list might seem simple, but basics that you include in your product like flour, tapioca starch or coconut milk can have different consistencies, fat content, or other attributes that impact the final product.

Substituting one ingredient for the other can make a big difference – you might even need to change and reprint all your nutrition labels if fat or sugar levels change. That’s an expense worth avoiding.

Assess the quality of ingredients you’re getting and whether they meet your product  requirements

Sometimes all it takes is a glance to see if the quality of a batch of ingredients is off. Other times, you’ll want to use a spec sheet to assess the details more closely. For example, some producers set color baselines for their ingredients using a hex code or the CR-A50 Konica Minolta test method. 

Every time a new shipment arrives, suppliers and manufacturers know exactly what to expect based on agreed-upon spec sheet details.

Creates specificity for  your supplier conversations and help build trust in new supplier relationships 

The more specific you can be with your suppliers, the better your relationships with them. For example, a supplier will appreciate working with you if you can specify mesh sizes, certifications, or applications that you need.

For example, if you’re looking for 200 lbs of single-ingredient freeze-dried raspberry powder with a mesh size of 20, that is much clearer than asking for 200 lbs of raspberry powder. 

Keep reading for an ingredient specification example you can use with your own suppliers to help establish clarity and better relationships. 

Create consistency  when finding substitutes or alternative sources

With a ingredient spec sheet, you’ll know how to find alternative sources or substitutes for your ingredients. 

With an uncertain economic outlook and supply chain concerns, it’s hard to take every supplier for granted. One might go out of business or be unable to meet demands during a given month. You can prepare your business for that scenario by knowing the exact product details you need.

If you have a product specification sheet you can share with a potential supplier, they can quickly determine what alternatives or substitutes would meet your needs. With the right color, shelf life and other technical details, you’ll be able to continue providing a consistent final product no matter what.

Stay on good terms with your co-packer

An ingredient spec sheet provides a great foundation for ensuring compliance with your co-packers’ standards – organic, halal, kosher, gluten-free, or any other requirement.

Double check that your suppliers can document those certifications and the allergen information listed on the spec sheet. 

Example of a spec sheet for ingredients

Are you ready to learn how to make a product spec sheet for yourself? 

At ShelfLife, we’ve created an ingredient spec sheet template that you’re free to use as a starting point. It follows all the best practices mentioned above. Reach out if you’d like feedback or have any questions for the ShelfLife team!

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