The science and religion of nutritional supplements

The science and religion of nutritional supplements

Discussion of the merits of nutritional supplements can be tricky, in the same way topics such as politics and religion are sometimes best avoided. That’s because you have two very polarized types of people when it comes to supplements: the “true believers” who believe that the supplements they take help to keep them healthy, and may have personally experienced positive results from taking specific supplements, and the “unfaithful,” who may point to studies that prove (to them) that vitamins and minerals are a waste of money at best or harmful to health at worst.  In between you have your “agnostics,” those who believe that supplements might do some good, but are generally not motivated to take much action or to incur much expense on the basis of that mild belief.

Luckily, it is at this point where the religion analogy starts to break down. After all, people are much more willing to try new supplements than to try a new religion. The key to real sales growth in the supplements industry is in that “agnostic” market, the same segment of the market that all the good and bad press surrounding nutritional supplements is more likely to sway one way or the other.

But that point about mild motivation is an important one. Negative press has had a significant impact on reducing nutritional supplement sales in the past 18 months, but we have also seen in the past how positive media just as easily spurs the agnostics into action. However, leaving things to the vicissitudes of positive and negative media coverage leads to chaos for consumers and for nutritional supplement sales.

The way to break that cycle is education, a particularly relevant factor since many different surveys have shown that supplement users also tend to be people most interested in educating themselves about their own health. Thus, a potential solution to managing the impact of media cycles is more good science, something unfortunately in short supply in the nutritional supplement industry.

Granted, rigorous scientific studies are expensive, and smaller companies cannot afford the series of double-blind studies with sufficient sample sizes required to show strong statistical correlations. However, there are numerous studies conducted by trade organizations or independent researchers that industry participants can help support and disseminate.  

Providing sound, scientific results on the usefulness of nutritional supplements, particularly for specific health conditions, can resonate with current and potential supplement users, and is the only real defense the nutritional supplement market has against naysayers and negative research studies.  And the key is good science.

Encouraging good science will mean the supplement industry will have to take its lumps if it intends to be entirely honest with its customers. After all, not every type of supplement is going to be as efficacious and worthwhile as marketers or consumers will want. In the end, however, the supplement industry as a whole can gain a lot of trust and credit with consumers by accepting such results when sound studies do show a less than glowing result for a given type of supplement.

The last 18 months have been brutal for supplements in terms of negative press, and the industry as a whole needs to start doing something differently to effectively deal with that build-up of negativity. Good scientific studies rather than flashier ads are the key to a sustainable industry. It is in the best interest of everyone, both industry participants and consumers looking to better their health, to seek out and respond to good supplement science.   After all, the truth is beautiful whether you are talking religion, science, or supplements.

This blog is based on research featured in Packaged Facts’ Nutritional Supplements in the U.S., 6th Edition, published in June 2014.  Add this report to your own intelligence library and receive a 5% discount during our promotional period effective through December 1, 2014. Use codePF2014NS.

-- By Norman Deschamps