Hot new products flanking the supplements aisles of natural products stores—the so-called silver bullets—mean big dollars for retailers. But it's no news to retailers that silver bullets have been in short supply lately.
The good news is that there is innovation going on in key areas. The bad news is that there's probably not enough. And some say retailers may be confusing innovation with another I-word: invention.
"There is a whole bunch of invention going on, but very little innovation," said Anthony Almada, president of IMAGINutrition and MetaResponse Sciences in Laguna Niguel, Calif. "Invention is when someone said, 'Green tea is great. Let's add ephedra and vitamin C, and now we have a new product.'
"Innovation is something that isn't obvious and generates a distinctive benefit. It's something that works, not something that's supposed to work," he said.
Innovation is incredibly rare in the supplements industry right now. Almada blames a lack of science to back up claims.
Decision makers in the industry are not only uninterested in science, they are often averse to it, he said. Most have roots in sales and marketing rather than in research and development. "If you were to go to [a natural products store] and look at dietary supplements, less than one-one hundredth of them have been shown to work in humans," he said.
Indeed, Steve Dentali, vice president of science and technical affairs at the American Herbal Products Association in Silver Spring, Md., believes government-funded scientific research will drive the market for supplements in the future. "We really don't know what echinacea does," he said. "We haven't done the research."
Retailers generally agree that good R&D needs to fuel development of supplements that will sell in the future.
"R&D needs to be a bigger part of the pie," said David DiBernardinis, buyer for Super Vitamin Outlet in Palm Harbor, Fla. He's looking for advanced delivery systems, particularly those that would make minerals more absorbable. "Five years ago my customers didn't know the difference between absorption and utilization. Now there is an outcry from them to get better products. They feel they got sucked in by marketing."
Almada said one tack will directly affect how manufacturers respond to this outcry: "Begin to ask, 'Do you have any human studies done by independent researchers on your actual products?' If you asked that question daily, within a year you'd see a significant shift to true R&D and innovation," he said. "Retailers have lots more power than they think they do."
However, there is some good science-based research out there right now that may indeed spur offerings that retailers can sell to their increasingly knowledgeable customers.
AHPA's Dentali said one herb to watch is gynostemma, an annual plant similar to ginseng that grows in India and contains ginsenosides. "The research looks good," he said.
Ongoing research on herbs will clear the muddy waters on efficacy.
Researchers at the University of Hawaii at Monoa report that problems with kava supplements were the result of using the wrong parts of the plant in production, although further research is needed. (See kava story.)
Also, Phil Harvey, science officer at the National Nutritional Foods Association, said the National Center on Complementary Medicine, a unit of the National Institutes of Health, is interested in funding a human study with ephedra to determine its safety and efficacy. He believes if good research were done on the controversial herb, it could be determined safe when used as directed.
Harvey also said there is increasing interest in alfalfa and red clover extracts for their estrogen-replacement effects. "I think that's an up-and-coming area," he said. In addition, he believes new antioxidants will emerge from fruits—specifically blueberries, cranberries and grapes. Even red yeast rice might again emerge in some form in the supplements aisle. "We may see a new application of red yeast rice in cancer," Harvey said. Research currently is being done on the rice at the University of California, Los Angeles' botanical research center.
Harvey himself has been involved in a University of California, Irvine study of SAMe for efficacy in osteoarthritis. The study compared SAMe with Pfizer's drug Celebrex and found that SAMe was equally as effective in relieving osteoarthritis pain as the pharmaceutical.
Eye And Joint Health
New supplements for eye and joint health also may become big sellers. Zeaxanthin, a carotenoid, may offer eye benefits over and above those of lutein, when the two marigold-petal extracts are combined.
Collagen supplements that can be proven to promote joint health also are up and coming. "It's an underground, next-generation thing," said Systemd Bioscience President Tim Avila.
Mood Menders And Stomach Health
New science on chromium picolinate also may boost sales of products containing it. A recent double-blind study at Duke University showed it benefited patients with atypical depression, a form of depression characterized by mood swings, increased appetite and weight gain, among other things. At least 50 supplements brands contain chromium pic, said Almada.
Zinc-carnosine has science behind it that shows promising benefits for stomach ulcer sufferers. PepZin GI is already allowed by the Food and Drug Administration as a new dietary ingredient; products containing it should be on shelves now. PepZin GI was nominated for this year's Functional Foods & Nutraceuticals' NutrAward.
Ultimately, it's difficult to predict how much of this new science will translate into new products. But one thing is clear: New products that work are needed.
"We need new ideas," Joseph Tittone, owner of Super-Natural Health Foods Center in Grandview, Mo., said. "We need new formulations that get results."