Serious Stuff

Science increasingly links dietary components to health enhancements. Most consumers understand this link. This is said so often it has become a cliché. However, even as the functional food and supplement industries exhibit good growth, industry insiders admonish that “sound science” is crucial in the production and marketing of these products. Products should deliver what they promise. Such diligence helps reduce consumer confusion and distrust.

Some products, such as antioxidants, provide health benefits that are important but not easily verifiable in the short term. Others, such as dietary fiber, glucosamine, probiotics and prebiotics (good bacteria and the fibers that “feed them,” respectively), often are purchased for fairly immediate relief of symptoms.

I personally have a strong belief in the healthfulness of certain nutraceuticals, pre- and probiotics being two. A 2005 Consumer Reports article entitled “Probiotics: Are Enough in Your Diet?” notes the best support for these organisms' benefits involve gastrointestinal relief, reduced allergic reactions (atopic eczema), respiratory infections, reduced urological infections and risk of colon cancer.

I recently had a personal foray into the “Land of the Unwell” with The Mother of All Throat Infections. Making a long story short, my physician prescribed an unusually heavy-duty antibiotic and alarmed me as he noted its potentially serious side effect. He uncomfortably suggested probiotic-containing yogurt as one way to reduce that risk, but added, “You know marketers. I really don't know if it does any good or not.” Of concern is that while it is important for these bacteria to survive the trip through the digestive track, most do not. The stomach is “designed” to kill and digest living organisms. It thus becomes an issue of numbers; the more bacteria digested, the more likely some will survive. Current thought is that one billion bacteria per serving are required to obtain gastrointestinal health benefits.

Although many branded foods and supplements fell short of this number in the Consumer Reports tests, some of my favorites--yogurts and smoothies from Danone and Stonyfield Farm--came through with flying colors. How crucial it is for a functional food or supplement to deliver what was promised had become a serious matter to me.

I'm loathe to lecture, as if from a pulpit, the importance of delivering to consumers what is being promoted. However, as many marketers well know, and from personal experience, little else can match the joy and brand loyalty that is generated when a product delivers what it has said it would.