Ozempic and other weight loss pharmaceuticals are transforming how obesity is viewed and treated by mainstream medicine but also creating opportunities for the supplement industry, Rick Polito of Nutrition Business Journal reports. From nutrient-dense meal replacements for people using or cycling off the drugs, to supplement ingredients focusing on metabolism and blood sugar for weight loss, brands are vying for space on pharma's coattails.

Rick Polito, Editor-in-chief

March 8, 2024

12 Min Read
Editorial credit: natalia gh / Shutterstock.comOzempic Insulin Injection Pen

At a Glance

  • As many as two thirds of people taking Ozempic and other weight loss drugs stop taking them in the first year.
  • Major companies are already marketing products to fill nutrition gaps created by the low calorie intake common with the drugs
  • Weight loss drugs may have cast a halo over supplement ingredients. Consider the “Nature’s Ozempic” effect on berberine.

This article originally appeared in Nutrition Business Journal’s Sports Nutrition and Weight Management Issue.

Darren Contardo has seen this movie before.

It was 2007, and Contardo was on the marketing team at Iovate, a brand occupying an enviable position in weight management with Hydroxycut. That summer, GSK (then GlaxoSmithKline) started selling its Orlistat weight-loss drug over the counter as Alli. Suddenly, Hydroxycut was up against a pharmaceutical available without a prescription.

“There was a little bit of a dip in performance,” the SP Nutraceuticals CEO recalls of Hydroxycut sales, but the dip was as short-lived as it was shallow. As soon as Alli’s infamous side effects became widely known, sales of Hydroxycut “went up 50%-plus.”

Contardo, whose company is finding success with its metabolic health/weight management ingredient Metavo, isn’t equating Alli—and its ultra-cringey reputation for “fecal leakage”—to Ozempic and similar drugs like Wegovy and Mounjaro, that are redefining weight loss, but recent headlines about muscle and hair loss added to widely known gastric side effects of the new drugs create a similar dynamic, he says.

“The category takes a hit, kind of like a tsunami, right?” Contardo says. “It sucks all the water back; it takes it away; and then boom, all these consumers come rushing back in, looking for a natural, better-for-you solution, and now they are a little more educated.”

Emerging outlines

A year after Ozempic and other weight-loss drugs, classified as GLP-1 agonists, blew up in the national conversation, supplement industry executives like Contardo are looking at the impact in new ways. A devastating forecast for the weight management supplements category appears premature, and predictions that the nutrition industry would step in with products to fill nutrient gaps created by the reduced calorie intake associated with the drugs have been confirmed by new protein-centric meal replacements from Abbott and Herbalife. Abbot is calling its new brand Protality, but Herbalife is being more direct with its “GLP-1 Nutrition Companion line.” A “Nature’s Ozempic” TikTok trend moved berberine from back-of-shelf to sold-out status. Less scrupulous brands are making bolder claims. Famous for boundary pushing, Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals is calling its weight-management offering Slimaglutide, an FDA-bating play on semaglutide, the active ingredient in Ozempic.

The developments put the supplement industry in an uncertain but familiar position, where opportunity and overstep can be expected.

Doug Kalman, veteran nutrition researcher and a consultant at Substantiation Sciences, describes the emerging relationship between pharma and nutrition in weight management as promising but unsettled at the moment. He worries about the shady claims and suppliers, not all of which are supplement companies, as the compounding pharmacy phenomenon has proven, but he also sees the opportunity to support weight-loss drug users on their journeys. Supplements do not need to stand in opposition to pharmaceuticals here, he says. That could mean filling the nutrient gaps and also helping people manage side effects, primarily muscle loss and the various kinds of gastric distress, but also offering solutions to people as they cycle on and off the drugs. “There is a natural opportunity for the industry to try to work with [pharmaceuticals] rather than saying one versus the other. This is an alignment opportunity on many fronts. I think it would be a mistake if the industry didn’t embrace it as such.”

Herbalife Chief Health and Nutrition Officer Kent Bradley, MD, says his company is only beginning to explore that alignment and it’s starting with the protein shakes the company knows so well. “We looked at current evidence of our product portfolio and recognized that we already had the building blocks,” Bradley says.

Tracking the tailwinds

Not everybody sees alignment as the primary opportunity.

For Contardo, grabbing for the coattails with products to support Ozempic users or pushing the edges on advertising and formulation à la Slimaglutide ignores how much the landscape has been transformed by the new drugs. After decades of touting thermogenic effects or underdelivering on efficacy with appetite suppressants, Contardo says brands in weight management need to reckon with a suddenly more-sophisticated customer who has been taught by GLP-1 drugs, first marketed for diabetes, that weight loss is a blood glucose game.

That education/sophistication quotient is what turned the new weight loss pharma from a headwind to a tailwind for supplements, Contardo argues. “I believe it’s a complete blessing in that it has educated the population and, more importantly, it’s actually created a much bigger category,” Contardo says. “It has brought a lot of new people into the category, and with a better understanding of the problems.”

SP Nutraceutical’s Metavo ingredient is derived from avocado and promoted as a healthy-metabolism solution. A meal replacement containing the ingredient makes claims for “weight support,” while capsule formulations promise either “weight support” or “glucose metabolism support.”

When Contardo saw Ozempic headlines hovering over a parade of suddenly thinner celebrities that included Oprah, he recognized the pattern he’d seen with GSK’s Alli. The GLP-1 side effects may not be as urgent or embarrassing, but muscle loss, termed “accelerated frailty” in older users, the gastric unpleasantries and, more recently noted, hair loss are no small matters.

A natural alternative free of such physical downsides, especially one that doesn’t require negotiating with insurance companies or expensive out-of-pocket outlays, is going to appeal to large numbers, Contardo says. SP Nutraceuticals contends Metavo meets the mark on all of the above and boasts that clinical research supports the efficacy claims.

Sales certainly don’t seem to be suffering from competition with Ozempic and the like. The company rebranded Metavo in May of 2023, and growth last year topped 300%, Contardo claims. He is banking on 400% for 2024. “Having not a better mousetrap but a better for you mousetrap, I think it’s a good time in the marketplace,” Contardo says.

Early in the game

Given the advertising onslaught and how much attention the GLP-1 pharmaceuticals have received in the news, it’s easy to forget how new the drugs are. It was only a year ago that Jimmy Kimmel stood on the stage at the Oscars and announced, ‘When I look around this room, I can’t help but wonder, ‘Is Ozempic right for me?’”

The uptake in the marketplace is astonishing—J.P. Morgan predicts a $100 billion market for weight management pharmaceuticals by 2030—but the track record with users may not be so promising. Pharmacy benefits manager Prime Therapeutics reported that only 32% of patients stuck with the drug for a full year. Evidence that people will rapidly regain the weight loss if they stop taking the drugs also made headlines.

Kalman points to existing products formulated for bariatric bypass patients as model for working with MDs prescribing weight-loss pharma, but he believes the difference is that the surgeries are not reversible. “Not everybody’s going to stay on those medicines forever,” Kalman says of the weight-loss drugs. “There’s opportunity for education for using nutritional products as part of a life cycle.”

Bradley says Herbalife notes the same dynamic of people cycling on and off the drugs, but they also see a perhaps bigger group who can’t afford the drugs or who do not meet medical guidelines to receive them. Those people, who might have given up on weight-loss solutions in the past, may view Ozempic as a sign that weight loss is more possible than they’d accepted. The fact that Ozempic has transformed weight loss from a lack of willpower to a “condition” might make weight management regimens an easier sale as well. “I think there’s an opportunity, now, to take somebody who has been activated by all this but who is disappointed that they cannot receive the medication, to be then told, ‘Hey, we have something for you.’”

That something could be the existing weight-management shakes and products Herbalife was making before the Ozempic era dawned. Some of the simplest products even work on the same glucose metabolism functions that Ozempic and the other drugs target, Bradley claims. “We can’t make a medical claim about this, but the reality is that food naturally activates our natural GLP-1 mechanism. That’s why you get a sense of fullness when you have a protein-rich meal.”

More sophisticated formulations and ingredients, Kalman says, may do even more. “I’ve seen a couple of companies that actually have good clinical science, either early stage or even human science, demonstrating that their nutritional interventions have an impact on various GLP-1-related hormones in humans, and it translated to significantly reduced food intake and significantly reduced appetite in acute studies that are now being translated into longer-term studies.”

The battle and the bulge

Products that are reported to mimic the effects of the GLP-1 drugs have already found some success. Boosted by a TikTok influencer, berberine has become so popular that one ingredient supplier told NBJ in January, “You can’t find berberine.” At SupplySide West, ingredient supplier Indena said the company was hard-pressed to meet demand for its berberine branded ingredient, Berbevis.

Amazon search traffic data proves that consumers are looking for natural alternatives. Raj Sapru, director of strategy at Netrush, an Amazon service provider working with supplement and natural brands, says the effect is obvious. In late February, Amazon had priced the keyword rate for the word “Ozempic” at $7.59 per click. The first supplement to come up when searching “Ozempic” on Amazon is konjac-root-based Lipozene from Obesity Research Labs, followed by a berberine formulation with cinnamon and milk thistle from Nutra Herbs.

And that’s just an “Ozempic” search. Searches associated with weight loss show a marked upswing over the last year.

“It’s such a high search term, and it’s such a big topic, that you try to lean into it as much as you can,” Sapru says of brands looking to game Amazon’s search function. “The Ozempic effect, or weight loss effect, is dragging in more related products into it.”

But while scientific studies have confirmed modest effects on weight from berberine, as well as blood sugar benefits, other observers say the profound efficacy noted for Ozempic and the other GLP-1 drugs has set a standard so high that dietary supplements are unlikely to match expectations. The fact that telehealth companies are offering the drugs without a physical examination means consumers can obtain it without meeting the medical guidelines, and compounding pharmacies supplying semaglutide have also brought the price down from the astronomical $1,000-plus monthly costs consumers without insurance might pay for Ozempic and Wegovy. The prices may have cast an unlikely halo effect over weight management supplements in the short term, but if drug prices drop and availability rises, that halo may dim.

That dimming is what Noah Voreades expects. The supplement industry consultant says Ozempic’s efficacy is too high for supplements to match, and he predicts people who want that efficacy will find a way to afford the drugs. “They can pay out of pocket, and they’re just going to cycle in and then cycle off,” Voreades says. “I think the weight loss management space is in a pickle.”

The bigger opportunity might be what Herbalife and Abbott are doing with shakes and meal replacement, Voreades says, and the competition there will be won by the brands that nail the taste experience. Telehealth outfits like Ro or Weight Watchers, which are both making a huge push on Ozempic, have the ability to offer one-stop shopping with the drugs and shakes in the same cart, but brands that offer a more premium product with amazing taste have an advantage over anything that smacks of substandard  “white label” commodity products. “I think consumers are going to look for brands that they love that have those benefits, like a Kate Farms or a Supergut or a Daily Harvest; brands they kind of already know.”

Experience and execution

Sara Marjoram, a consultant to food and nutrition companies at Focus Brands, agrees that the taste and product experience is paramount, but she also believes that nobody can be sure just yet what people on the GLP-1 drugs are going to want. The long-term experience remains unclear. High protein and a micronutrients panel might not be enough. “It’s a little difficult to differentiate yourself if your product is simply high protein,” Marjoram says. “What else can you bring to the table?”

Marjoram believes brands in the shake space might be best served by looking at hormonal and gut health. They could also be looking at a range of products to fit into the on-again/off-again cycle that, early signs indicate, will be part of the experience for a large percentage of people on the drugs. “We’ve got the journey of the immediate weight loss and how to complement it—and then how to maintain it—but then I think there’s a whole other use case in how to create innovations around that cycling.”

Bradley says Herbalife is already looking past its initial GLP-2 Companion products at what the cycle might look like and what needs might emerge. “When people are on these [drugs], they will eventually get off of them,” he says, “and when that rebound happens, they might realize that there needs to be some fundamental changes that have to occur.”

Weight loss and rebounds are a familiar pattern for people looking to lose weight. It’s a familiar pattern for brands selling to them, too, but Bradley says Herbalife believes it can meet these consumers in a new way. “Wouldn’t it be great if this [weight loss drugs] activated them? That we can actually help people change their behavior in the midst of this so they don’t go back to their old approach?”

Contardo argues that the cycle has already started. How many of the two-thirds of people who give up on Ozempic in the first year will go back to it isn’t clear yet, but the real prize, he says, is to find them before they do. Ozempic changed the weight-loss game, making shedding pounds a matter of metabolism and glucose. His company’s Metavo ingredient makes claims for both, and the weight management support ­formulation adds in berberine and green coffee bean.

More products and new solutions in the wake of the Ozempic wave are inevitable across the supplement industry, he says. “There’s going to be whole categories born out of this that we haven’t even discovered yet, based on the need states for these consumers.”

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About the Author(s)

Rick Polito

Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Business Journal

As Nutrition Business Journal's editor-in-chief, Rick Polito writes about the trends, deals and developments in the natural nutrition industry, looking for the little companies coming up and the big money coming in. An award-winning journalist, Polito knows that facts and figures never give the complete context and that the story of this industry has always been about people.

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