A Response to Consumer Reports' Scary Supplements

There is a very clear takeaway from the cover story in September's Consumer Reports (CR): Modern media thrives on fear. Modern media thrives on any number of heightened human emotional responses, but fear is one of the biggies. Add in a health scare, and you can (presumably) sell lots of magazines.

consumer erportsIn a piece titled, "The 12 Most Dangerous Supplements," CR profiles several adverse outcomes from consumers of supplements who ingested tainted or overhyped products that sent their bodies into dramatic disarray. One man in Signal Mountain, Tenn. took a general health supplement overloaded with selenium and his fingernails fell off. A woman in Bartlesville, Okla. took colloidal silver to fight Lyme disease and her skin turned blue. A man in Janesville, Wis. took Hydroxycut to lose five pounds and developed acute hepatitis. These are tragic outcomes, worthy of spotlight, and certainly worthy of a healthy dose of fearmongering to prevent repeat occurrences.

What seems less worthy is the prominence of this coverage, and the sure-to-become-viral nature of its impact. My father just emailed me a link to the story this morning, and the issue has barely hit the stands. Watch the nightly news this week, and you'll have to fight back an impulse to clear out your medicine cabinet.

From my perspective, what's most newsworthy about the news from CR is the immateriality of the supplements in question, a so-called "dirty dozen." Colloidal silver? Kava? Coltsfoot? These are not mainstream supplement products. This is, yet again, a bright spotlight choosing to shine on the dark alleys and niche markets of the industry.

Here at NBJ, we thrive on research and quantitative results to fundamentally drive our colorful, insightful and qualitative commentary. In fact, CR cites our sizing of the overall supplement market ($26+ billion in 2009) in the first paragraph of the story. Here are a few more stats:

Top 3 Supplements by 2009 Sales Volume
Multivitamins, $4.8 billion
Sports powders & formulas, $2.5 billion
B vitamins, $1.2 billion

Dirty Dozen Supplements by 2009 Sales Volume
Kava, $20 million
Bitter orange, $20 million
Yohimbe, $10 million

The other nine are too small to track independently, so we lump them into an Other Herbs & Botanicals bucket.

To its credit, CR has a serious and important mission to protect consumers from the likes of colloidal silver and other supplements with dangerously inaccurate label claims. I do not mean to disparage CR's right and duty to report a story like this. What I do want to suggest, for CR and the rest of the modern mainstream media to hear with wide-open ears, is this: The supplement industry is too big and too nuanced now to paint with one coarse brush. There is earnest and important research happening around the 12 least dangerous supplements, whatever those might be, and reporting of that nature might be more useful, though less frightening, to a population of consumers looking to stay healthy in a broken health care system.

Let's talk more about the $2.5 billion market for sports supplements, which CR rightly highlights as more prone than others to adulteration. And let's talk more about the supplements CR profiles as popular and "likely" safe. There are some material sales levels at play here, so I'll close with a few more stats:

CR's 11 Supplements to Consider by 2009 Sales Volume
Calcium, $1.2 billion
Cranberry, $78 million
Fish oil, $976 million*
Glucosamine sulfate, $803 million**
Probiotics, $527 million***
Psyllium, $89 million
Pygeum, $7 million
SAMe, $123 million
St. John's wort, $57 million
Vitamin D, $425 million

*NBJ tracks a collective fish/animal oil.
**NBJ tracks glucosamine with chondroitin.
***CR lists lactase and lactobacillus, which NBJ does not track independently.

As always, NBJ welcomes your comments below.

Related NBJ links:

'09 Sales Growth Sputters in Every Nutrition Category as Economy Takes its Toll

2010 Nutrition Industry Overview Web Seminar

Supplement Research

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