If, like me, you spent this past Sunday safely nestled away from the ravages of Hurricane Irene reading the Sunday New York Times, then you will have seen yet another report from “the newspaper of record” questioning the legitimacy of the supplement industry. The article, “Here’s to Your Health, So They Claim — Ingredients of Shady Origins Posing as Supplements,” by Natasha Singer, appeared as the cover story of the Sunday Business section.
One cannot dispute the primary point of the article, that there are instances where illegal ingredients, specifically pharmaceuticals and banned substances, have been found in supplement products sold in the US market. This fact is not surprising — there are many instances where we find tainted and forbidden ingredients throughout the food chain, particularly in imported goods. For instance, the family of pesticides called organophosphates are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors that have been banned for use in the US and on goods destined for the US market. However, produce that has been treated with these chemicals ends up in the grocery store on a daily basis ready to be eaten by an unsuspecting public.
Ultimately, the burden to regulate and assure safety rests squarely on the FDA, not the food industry. The same argument is offered by Steven Mister of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), that the FDA needs to more effectively enforce existing regulations by going after the questionable manufacturers in the industry rather than change the regulations or cast aspersions on the entire industry as this article has. Sadly, I found that the way Mr. Mister was quoted at the end of the article made the industry appear to be an opportunistic group that is more concerned with its financial well-being than the public’s welfare. “We are concerned that if we alert consumers, we may unnecessarily drive them away from the marketplace … we could make them afraid to take legitimate dietary supplements.” Although one can easily understand that Mr. Mister’s position is that we cannot call into question the legitimacy of the entire industry due to a few bad players, the media has and will continue to do so.
The supplement industry must take measures to protect its credibility and integrity, to assure the public that we are looking out for their best interest.
Built upon the promise of empowering people to take control of their own health, the supplement industry must take measures to protect its credibility and integrity, to assure the public that we are looking out for their best interest. One means toward this is adopting transparency into your company position by employing a traceability platform for products and ingredients. During the Gaia Herbs rebrand, our quantitative and qualitative research uncovered a high degree of distrust and apathy by the public toward the industry, that people in turn rely on their relationships for guidance rather than brands, and that many of these relationships are with the retail staff. By implementing our “Meet Your Herbs” program, Gaia was able to create a higher degree of assurance and impart knowledge with the gatekeepers of trust — the retail floor staff — by sharing their mission, passion and integrity with everyone.
As an industry, we must also be aware of what we are perpetuating as markets grow. The category that has experienced the most growth is also the most notorious for spiking and doping — the performance-enhancing products including weight loss, energy, male enhancement and weight gain, to name a few. As we found from our research, people buying these performance-based supplements are looking for immediate, temporal results, and their concern about long-term implications is low to nonexistent. We have to be mindful of the behavior that is driving these purchases. Calling attention to the illegal or out-of-compliance factors can actually drive greater interest by this audience — the allure of potency with potential scarcity drives an underground word of mouth within community groups like athletes. It is in these instances where we see the truly serious health risks.
And the media continues to paint the industry with the “snake oil” brush of self-interest. After all, for newsmakers, it does serve an interest — theirs.