If only I had a quarter for every time I heard the dietary supplement industry being compared to “the wild wild west,” or that the dietary supplement industry is “unregulated”…
The reality all of us in the dietary supplement industry must face is yet another cliche: “perception is reality.” What consumers perceive to be the truth is what we are up against, and the burden we must bear to right the wrongs of previous industry misdeeds. As previously reported, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been clamping down on companies and their claims, releasing the new landmark Health Product Compliance Guidance in Dec 2022. The FTC has been investigating social media companies for allowing paid advertising of misleading health products, and in April 2023, nearly 700 FTC warning letters were sent to some of the world’s leading health and wellness brands. Companies have been put on notice ‘that they should avoid deceiving consumers with advertisements that make product claims that cannot be backed up or substantiated.’
And consumers are savvier than ever about substantiated claims. According to a newly released study from the University of California San Diego (UCSD), “Those who saw the bottles carrying the additional ‘clinically proven’ claim had approximately two-fold greater odds of being ‘Likely to purchase,’ relative to those who saw the bottles that only carried the ‘reduces stress’ claim.” The survey also showed that having a “clinically proven” claim increased consumers’ willingness to pay more for a product. Trust is key for consumers, and verifiable claims are soon becoming the norm. The study also highlights the importance of monitoring and anticipating evolving requirements from retailers and regulators regarding the appropriate substantiation required in order to make strong label claims.
However, it’s not just brands that need to be committed to this mission. Retailers play a critical role in fostering consumer trust and confidence in the industry. From a brand, retailer, and even regulatory perspective, we fall short when it comes to being proactive to change the unfortunate narrative that has continued to plague our industry.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t approve dietary supplements. Unlike pharmaceuticals, which need FDA approval, the FDA is not authorized to approve dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness. However, the FDA can take legal action against any adulterated or misbranded dietary supplement in the marketplace. Yet, most consumers don’t know this. In a retail environment where dietary supplement sales are driven by 5-star customer reviews, this quote from Arthur Schopenhauer is relevant, “he who writes for fools always finds a large public“. Customer reviews are meaningless when it comes to dietary supplement safety, quality and effectiveness.
Instead, consumers would be best served seeking out dietary supplements that are 3rd party lab tested, with clinically substantiated structure/function claims. Moreover, retailers could and should serve as a community platform in which to protect, educate and empower. If they took their role as the consumer gatekeeper and protector, they would reserve shelf space for brands that are clinically proven and lab-tested for safety, purity and potency.
The FDA’s Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) has compiled resources for consumers, including what they consider to be “important information about how to evaluate information on the internet, where to find supplement safety alerts and advisories, and how to report adverse events.” However, the ODS misses this educational opportunity to mention that the FDA regulates both finished dietary supplement products and dietary ingredients under a different set of regulations than those covering “conventional” foods and drug products.
The FDA can and does inspect manufacturing and packaging facilities for compliance, as well as monitoring adverse event reports. Dietary supplement companies must ensure their products are safe and comply with labeling and quality requirements, such as current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP). These regulatory consumer assets and talking points can also go in the retailer toolbox when it comes to educating and empowering consumers with more information.
As an industry, it is critical that we all galvanize behind those in the regulatory and consumer safety sectors. Reputationally and regulatorily, we have the responsibility to know what “competent and reliable scientific evidence” means, and perhaps more importantly, how to utilize it in every step of product development – from ideation and developing accurate claims to then enforcing them from supply chain to shelf.
The supplement industry needs to hold each other accountable. One way to achieve this would be to involve retailers by suggesting that they require that brands provide substantiation for any and all dietary supplement marketing claims.
In sum, here are 4 ways retailers can help consumers:
- Be actively involved in educating consumers about the tactics of bad actors
- Help the regulatory agencies understand some of our own hurdles and associated costs
- Report scammers, bad actors, and fraudulent products
- Work collectively to call for and enact gold standard clinical trials that ensure retailers get quality, effective, and safe products on their shelves.
It’s time we (the royal we: all with a vested interest in the continued success and integrity of this industry) applied gold standards to our testing and trials and take action to build consumer trust with substantiated claims.