Opening Pandora's Box, or Simplifying Research for the Media

Supplement research isn’t the problem, writes Elan Sudberg. It’s what people are doing with it.

Elan Sudberg, CEO

July 25, 2014

3 Min Read
Opening Pandora's Box, or Simplifying Research for the Media

Scientific research is the seed from which the dietary supplement industry will grow. We all know herbs and vitamins work because we all take them (well, most of us) and benefit from their powers. I take a handful morning and night and when I don't, I, well, I can't say. The FDA has not evaluated my claims.

While they have been around longer than we have and are the foundation to almost all current pharmaceutical medicines, herbals are still a no-no and will get you in big trouble. Due to restrictions by the FDA and FTC, we cannot state the obvious nor can we state shared effects. The classic script: "This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease" must be on every product and your marketing claims must be in check.

Ultimately, I agree with these rules in an effort to protect us from those who would take advantage of the gullible, naive, and desperate-for-a-solution demographics. That said, the industry will stagnate without mandated research to substantiate what we may have already known, suspected, or theorized.

In recent years, research has become the marketing team's way of communicating to the customer. With just a smidge of reproducible evidence that “product 'X' may do 'Y', 'Z%' of the time,” marketing departments begin to engineer products as if they are wise formulators.  Based on the newest ingredient with a small study backing it, marketing teams will produce a new product to meet what the consumers don’t yet realize they want.

And it’s played right into the hands of Dr. Oz and his infamous effect.

Ah, Dr. Oz. He is neither a dietician nor a nutritionist but a cardiothoracic surgeon who enjoys the sensationalism of recommending dietary supplements to the gullible, naïve, and desperate-for-a-solution demographic. He has been both helpful and damaging to the dietary supplement industry—helpful by bringing awareness to the mainstream consumer of the potential benefits of this industry's bounty and damaging by bringing awareness to the mainstream scam artists: the potential revenue of this industry's naive customer base.

Dr. Oz has given countless Americans hope and confidence to try new products. Unfortunately, he is promoting occasionally questionable products made by cheaters mimicking those products with poor quality ingredients. The FDA and FTC has made it clear not to make unsubstantiated claims about your products from the bottles themselves and even on your companies Facebook site. Meanwhile, since he is not selling these products—nor is he prescribing them—he continues to make such unwanted claims to his audience.

Unless you have a subscription to Journal of Ethnopharmacology or The World Journal of Gastroenterology and can fully understand peer reviewed research like a peer than your best bet to learning about new research is by following the various industry websites. Usually, they will post summarized versions for us to review and pretend we understand. The publication, HerbalGram and AHPA's weekly News Report both do great jobs in presenting current and relevant research reviews.

Still, some of these are way over our heads if we don't have degrees in chemistry or may have one—but have long forgotten the foundations. From these research studies we are told that product 'X' may do 'Y', 'Z%' of the time. This makes us feel better most of the time, and then we go look for cheaper versions of product X on the web.

It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s one that I’m not sure how to stop it. If we simplify the science, the industry looks like it’s making claims. That’s what compels consumers to buy products, even though that FDA and FTC forbid that practice. We could eliminate Dr. Oz, but that’s a temporary fix. His type of sensationalism will never cease. We feed off the hope given by his authority. If Dr. Oz goes away, the Food Babe or the Pill Hunk will take his place.

We want to be heard and we can’t afford to be inscrutable. We just have to hope that the right messenger comes along, before the wrong people get angry.

About the Author(s)

Elan Sudberg

CEO, Alkemist Labs

Élan M. Sudberg is CEO of Alkemist Labs, a passionately committed contract testing laboratory specializing in plant and fungal identity, potency and purity testing for the food, beverage, nutraceutical and psychedelic industries. His favorite part of his job is catching cheaters, and he is known for pushing the industry to continually raise the bar on quality and transparency. Élan holds a degree in chemistry from California State University Long Beach, and he is on the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) board of trustees.

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