Love v. Hype

Marc Lemay

December 28, 2011

3 Min Read
Love v. Hype

Vitamins are controversial. Even for me, a supplement scientist. I love plants. I love eating them. But are they good for me? Are plants good for me because they have antioxidant action in my body, or because they have pro-oxidant action in my body? Are plant concentrates OK? Individual phytochemicals like resveratrol? Watching the battle for market and mindshare dominance between natural resveratrol, synthetic resveratrol analogues, and pterostilbene is like watching various strains of a bacterium clash within a petri dish.

Hype causes confusion.

Some, like the health and fitness blogger Fitjerk, see hype as a rich humus that fosters innovation in the dietary supplement industry. Others preach science and rationality and education; but walk into a well-stocked Health Food store and ask the clerks what’s good for what ails you. How could they not try to help you “treat, prevent, cure, mitigate” and even “diagnose” any number of diseases? There’s an inherent conflict of interest there, is the FDA’s and FTC’s take, hence the segregation of third-party articles and information from products.

There’s dangerous nonsense that has no place in retail, that which offers false hopes and quackery in the guise of unlicensed medical or pharmaceutical practice. But the roots of confusion run deeper. Consider the book that’s been circulating in the industry for the past decade like a piece of trash in the Pacific Vortex, purporting to be a Guide for the Perplexed but is just a thinly veiled mendacious algorithm designed to recommend one manufacturer’s brand of multivitamins over all others.

How could there ever be one, two, or even 10 “best” multivitamins? You think it’s a question of retailer education, of mastering more of the science? Let’s say there’s a retailer, or a manufacturer, who believes in custom formulating a basic multi according to an individual's needs and wishes. You can choose any 12 from 20 available vitamins and minerals, each offered at four different levels. You’re looking at over 60 trillion possible combinations. Who’s to argue which is the “best” supplement, the most “scientific” one? The infinite choice of a well-stocked health food store is a good thing, up to a point. Even quasi-rogues like Huperzine A, available right there on the shelf, is a good thing.

False hopes and false claims are a bad thing.

What’s the solution? Love. Love and understanding. There’s a great article in a recent New Yorker about the coffee producer Aida Batlle. “In an industry where farmers and connoisseurs have often been kept apart,” Kelafa Sanneh writes, “Batlle is both - she’s a producer who speaks fluent consumer[.]”:

“Plenty of farmers have great land and great cherry, but almost none of them share Batlle’s keen understanding of what her customers want to drink, what they want to hear, and what they’re willing to pay.”

Batlle’s success isn’t because she's a more seductive serpent hyping phantom qualifiers like greenwood moss notes in a cup of joe; at least not only. She truly loves her coffee, and so do her distributors, so do the coffee shops that buy her beans. The supplement industry equivalent would be more of a boutique or a curated version of the Mother’s Market & Kitchens of this world. Instead of shelves towering to the ceiling with 23 varieties of Co-Q10, there’d be, like, three brands. Each personally vouched for, loved, by the retailer.

Loving one thing means loving other things less, or not at all. Dizzyingly-stocked health food stores are fun to roam in, but there’s inevitably a lot of dross. The good stuff gets lost in the shuffle. Who’s going to be the loving curator of this wild west of dietary supplements?

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