On Oct. 25, 1994, President Clinton signed into law, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. DSHEA, as it has been adopted into the every day language of the health and wellness industry, changed the face of a cottage industry and added legitimacy to a whole new generation of consumers seeking alternative health solutions. On Oct. 25th of this year, DSHEA will celebrate its 20th anniversary. The landmark legislation that led the way to one of the most meteoric growth spurts seen in modern consumer history remains unchanged, even though the industry it supports today bears little resemblance to the industry it validated in 1994.
The debate today, among many of the leaders in our burgeoning $35 billion industry, is simply … does the legislation of 1994, which did so much to bring credibility to our industry, serve us appropriately in today’s market? And, as it is in most debates, consensus is hard to come by.
The fact is, DSHEA was a beginning, a start; it is not a conclusion. The legislation that brought the definition of an industry from nothing to something was never intended to be everything. Consider the rollercoaster ride our industry has experienced since DSHEA was enacted.
The industry of 1994, roughly $8 billion in sales, has experienced compounded double-digit growth every year since DSHEA became law. The 1990s was the decade of discovery. DSHEA opened the door to growth, innovation, new science, new discovery and a nation of wanting consumers enchanted with the thought that there are natural solutions to their individual health needs. There was a new miracle herb being touted in the media every month (see “Herbal Healing,” Time magazine, Nov. 23,1998), science focused on the possibility of positive results (see “E is for Eluding heart disease,” Time magazine, May 31, 1993) and hundreds more in thousands of media formats brought the positive benefits of dietary supplementation to millions of new customers and by the turn of the century our industry had almost doubled in size.
The turn of the century brought the decade of question. Sales continued to climb at record paces, but the bloom of discovery was wilting in the face of an industry with a low barrier to entry, and a glut of new products were rushed to market in an effort to capture a piece of the supplement dream. The miracle herbs and key discoveries of the '90s were replaced with a litany of ephedra-laced weight loss products, sales growth in letter vitamins were replaced with a warped definition of a dietary supplements--androstenediol, HGH and nitrox oxide. The 2000s ushered in the era of meta-study: the health benefits of vitamin E, so clearly defined just 10 years earlier were brought crashing to the ground with a John Hopkins meta-study in November 2004. Ephedra was banned, designer steroid precursors were classified as drugs, and the positive press of discovery (see Time magazine cover April 6, 1992) was replaced with the negative press of disbelief (see “Health Supplements, the Dirty Dozen,” Time magazine, April 12, 2004).
Today we approach the middle of a new decade, and although the negative press of disbelief lingers in the form of creative license disguised as meta-study, this decade will be defined by the consumer. In the end, that’s who we serve, and the trends of the day--non-GMO, magnesium stearate free, vegan, gluten free, organic, clean--begin to define an industry returning to its roots. And with consumers today demanding more from their dietary supplements, they are turning to demanding more, and they will grow to demand even more from us.
Yes, DSHEA brought a new era to our industry, opened the door to great growth, and for those in our industry that worked tirelessly to get it enacted, you are applauded daily. However, 20 years later, it's time to take a hard look at what DSHEA doesn’t provide to the industry today. The barrier to entry into this industry continues to have no hurdles; DSHEA does not define the boundaries of consumer trust, and most importantly, DSHEA will not meet the expectations of the dietary supplement consumer today. The core customer of 1994 was age 40 to 55, today she/he is 25 to 65. The generations of today, and the generations of tomorrow will demand transparency, they will demand efficacy, and they will demand quality and safety from all of us.
The foundation of DSHEA served us well, it defined us, it validated us, it gave us great life. It brought to our industry what we needed in 1994, and it gave the consumer what they wanted at the same time. Today, DSHEA needs to continue to provide the foundation it has provided for 20 years and also respond quickly to the current consumer--before we lose them, lose them to the fog of uncertainty fueled by those who test the boundaries of DSHEA and open the doors to the harbingers of meta-study who hold desperately to the archaic idea that the science of drugs will unlock the mystery of life. We know otherwise.