There is a paradigm shift in why consumers are taking supplements. Consumers no longer take them just to ensure proper nutrition, but to get a health and performance effect. Many consumers are extremely knowledgeable and sophisticated about nutritional supplements. As the population ages, they look for enhancements—products that make specific health and performance claims, and show concrete results.
Seeing Direct Results
People taking vitamin E, folic acid and B-12 no longer do this just to meet their daily RDAs; they expect their cardiovascular health to improve, thus leading to better general health. Other enhancers that have become popular include zinc to minimize the effects and length of colds, and selenium and lycopene to maintain prostate health. Consumers ingest ginseng to increase stamina and ginko biloba to increase their memory performance. They expect to keep an edge on health, and no longer are content just to maintain it.
The interest consumers have in optimizing health and performance is reflected in the attention the media gives to this topic. For example, when "20/20" presented a piece on how St. John's wort helps minimize minor depression, sales for the supplement went through the roof. Lately, however, there is more negative than positive press about supplements, casting doubt about the safety and efficacy of these products. Last year, on the average, approximately 61% of the articles written about supplements were negative. In certain periods, the percent negative press spiked as high as 88%. Furthermore, Consumer Labs, a consumer watchdog, has been pulling products off the shelf and testing them, often showing that the products do not meet label claim and questioning their safety.
The Dietary Supplement Health Education Act (DSHEA) has opened the flood gate to many opportunistic, marketing savvy companies that make their money on products based on "big claims with small science." This has lowered consumer confidence and hurt the industry.
A Lesson from Biotech Companies
How to combat this? It is up to us in the industry to substantiate the product claims with sound science. We need to do more and better-controlled clinical studies and to educate the media that there is sound science behind the products. A drawback has been that efficacy studies and investigative research, in general, are expensive and time-consuming. Nutraceutical companies must be creative and may need to look outside their own resources to drive scientific support.
One answer is to mirror what the biotech industry is doing. Large drug companies are funding smaller biotech research companies to do the investigations. Companies that specialize in clinical studies and scientific validation do the actual science, while the nutraceutical companies license the science and market products based on this intellectual property. Another viable partner for nutraceutical companies are universities that specialize in clinical research.
Going forward, in order for nutraceutical companies to be successful, they must not only be a strong marketing company, but also a science-based company. They must educate the media and consumers to help them understand the science behind their products. Companies that do their homework and acquire the scientific backup to their product claims will endure; those who do not will hurt the industry and, eventually, themselves.