February 24, 2012
In 1980 I was working in a health food store—my fifth one since starting with the zeal of a religious militant in 1975. It was called Mother’s Market (now a powerhouse independent chain in the Orange County, CA region). I distinctly recall a new product during my two-year tenure: The Brain Pill. It had a yellow and black label and boasted a multi-ingredient formula that centered upon B vitamins and choline (bitartrate). We advocated it based upon the “full spectrum blend” of brain nutrients. NONE of the ingredients had been shown to improve cognitive function in humans.
We sold a LOT for a while, and then either people forgot to come back and buy more or it didn’t deliver on the promise. I suspect it was the latter.
In 1988-1989, I was working at San Francisco-based Global Marketing Associates, among the first to offer standardized botanical extracts as ingredients. They mostly came from Europe, and from some big players: Indena, Swedish Herbal Institute, and Schwabe. This was also the first time I had ever heard of Ginkgo biloba. I was enchanted by the volume of (mostly pre-clinical, non-human) science AND the clinical trials on the Schwabe Ginkgo biloba extract (EGb 761®). Some of the companies we sold these ingredients to began to combine the pioneer extract with other ingredients, and concurrently invoked the word “Synergistic” in relation to the formulation (despite the complete absence of any evidence thereto…as is today).
Neuronutrients started buzzing in the '90s, with ingredients like Ginkgo biloba extract (and the clinical evidence almost exclusively linked to EGb 761) and bovine brain-derived phosphatidylserine (extinct due to the concerns over transmission of prions from mad cow brains). What also started growing wings and begin buzzing was the use of the phrase key ingredient: “A key ingredient in Brain Boomerang™ has been shown to improve mental recall, reaction time, oral and written test performance, and alertness among assisted living persons undertaking an online university MBA program.” Often times the “key ingredient” is shrouded in obfuscating language, or is given an ultra esoteric chemical name that would inspire mere mortals to channel Dr. Elias Corey to assist in translating.
From the perspective of a consumer, a common perception is that the actual product being offered for sale has been shown to be effective (and safe). But the Key Ingredient strategy also offers an ostensible regulatory safe harbor for marketers, who can make an efficacy claim for ONE (maybe TWO) ingredient in a poly-bioactive cocktail (with 10-35 ingredients).
In the category of brain and cognitive health have a reverse situation, where “key ingredients” are actually not mentioned but are included. For example, the fictitious Brain Boomerang™ product (a name we conceived for an advertisement for my consulting company, IMAGINutrition) above, the product serves as a Trojan horse for caffeine. Two recent published clinical trials assessed cocktails but failed to compare the stable of horses to the horse that has won lots of races. One study from 2011 compared a five- ingredient cocktail (plus biotin) to an inert placebo. Five of the six ingredients each had variable evidence bases relating to cognitive function. Why no comparison to huperzine A or vinpocetine ALONE? Scrap the placebo when you compare against a bioactive that (presumably) is already demonstrated to be safe and effective (as is done in numerous comparator drug studies).
In another 2011 study your old reliable cognitive function-boosting friend comprised, in part, the liquid composition. The amount of caffeine is not disclosed but wouldn’t a caffeine-only version of the beverage been a wonderful comparator? As with Red Bull® and all of the other “energy drinks,” none have studies showing they are better than the equal dose of caffeine alone.
Time to unlock the BIG opportunity and show that a sum is greater than a key ingredient.
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