Sifting through research may not be your idea of a good time, but with the industry being criticized in the media and consumers questioning the efficacy of supplements, the strength of your sales pitch is in the science. Educating yourself about product-specific research puts you in a position of power when making purchasing decisions and customer recommendations.
"I think research has to be one of the most important things a retailer looks at because it is going to reflect on their store," says Jim Komorowski, director of technical services and scientific affairs at Nutrition 21 Inc. in Purchase, N.Y. "Whatever product they're selling or promoting on their shelves, I would think they would want it to be the most efficacious and customer-satisfying product."
Recommending an efficacious product often wins customer loyalty and referrals. But how do you know what's what when you're awash in marketing materials and manufacturer promises? Anthony Almada, founder and chief scientific officer of IMAGINutriton in Laguna Niguel, Calif., says examining the research is the only way to distinguish between companies with product-specific science and "nutritional evangelists."
"Everyone can claim, especially face-to-face, that their product is the Holy Grail," Almada says, "but how many of them can claim with logical, independent science—which is the only divining rod—that this product works or doesn't work compared with somebody else's, or compared with placebo?"
It's easy to be lulled by earnest sales reps with great stories, but if they can't show you the science, Almada recommends telling them their lack of substantiation will be factored into your buying decision.
Komorowski agrees. "Rather than just taking a company's word for it, ask for the research behind it. Ask for information on the product itself and its background—it is very important."
When looking at research, keep several questions in mind: Was the product in question used in the study? It should be specified by trade name, typically in the "methods" section. Was the study conducted in humans? What was the dose, and how was it delivered? What were the results?
"If the retailer finds in the papers that the product by name has been [mentioned], that it was delivered orally, that the dose is realistic, [then the retailer can] advocate it with confidence," Almada says.
Valerie Rodrigues, Apple Health Foods' store manager in Redwood City, Calif., gathers information from sales representatives, books, articles, NNFA updates and research reports on the products her store carries. Research factors into her buying decisions, but she says that sometimes she has to dig to get the full picture. "There's research that's been done in petri dishes, [or] laboratory rats, then there's some research that's been done with humans in double-blind, placebo-controlled studies," Rodrigues says. "[A study's impact] depends on the actual research that's been done."
Following up on claims and reviewing research isn't always easy, but Almada recommends shifting some of this work back to sales reps. "The retailer can say, 'I don't have time to sift through your articles to find out where your product or ingredient is called out by name. Can you underline that and how it was delivered—orally, in a beverage, in a baked good—and how much the subjects received per day? Can you highlight this information for me so I can show it to my customers?'"
Manufacturers with product-specific science should be happy to supply this type of information. The problem is, not many companies are doing product-specific research. Instead, they're content to refer to their competitor's studies.
"There are obviously hundreds of supplements companies, [but] there are probably only a handful that sponsor research on their products," says Tim Ziegenfuss, chief scientific officer for Hicksville, N.Y.-based Pinnacle Bodyonics and consultant for Cytodyne Technologies in Wall, N.J. "Most companies are content to sell stuff and point to other people's research. But really, it is what I refer to as product-specific research that matters."
Differentiating between product-specific research and "borrowed" or, as Almada prefers, "pirated" science is an important distinction. Many companies point to research done on a competitor's product and say it is relevant while claiming their own product is unique.
"If a company says its ginkgo is different than everybody else's, which every botanical manufacturer says, then that would mean it would behave differently biologically than everybody else's," Almada says. "And if [that particular ginkgo] isn't studied for its biological effects, then it may not work like the one that has been studied. It may not work at all or it may work better, but if you don't know, how can you say?"
Komorowski sees a lot of companies borrowing science. "It is a way of trying to say you have substantiation, but for instance in minerals there is a big difference between forms. We see it in the chromium market where we've invested millions of dollars in research [on chromium picolinate]. There are other forms of chromium that will claim in their marketing material to have efficacy for a certain indication—maybe it's diabetes or cholesterol or weight loss—and they've never done any studies in those [groups of patients], they just say, 'we're a form of chromium, too.'"
Rodrigues tells shoppers which products were studied specifically, but will also offer "less expensive but equal quality" alternatives that she believes "are also very good and will likely provide the same results."
Ziegenfuss encourages retailers to support companies that sponsor research by carrying and recommending their products. "A lot of smaller companies say they don't have the money to fund research," he says. "I find that extremely hard to believe because depending on where you go, you can get research done at a reputable university for between $5,000 and $10,000 a study."
Once a company commits to research, it must communicate the results to retailers. At Cytodyne, which has funded 12 studies in the last few years, mostly on its ephedra-containing weight loss supplement Xenadrine, Ziegenfuss translates research results into lay terms to help the sales team understand the details. He also writes articles for consumer magazines to get the word out about its product-specific research.
Ziegenfuss believes it is critical that retailers get this information. "It helps retailers do their jobs and ultimately that trickles down to helping consumers get the effects they really want."
Nutrition 21, which sponsors research at universities and independent labs on its raw materials and blends, communicates the results in several ways. Komorowski says the company publishes study results in journals and promotes them at medical meetings. It also works directly with retailers. "For instance, [one retailer] has a monthly publication and we give them data from our studies and information to help them write articles that they can distribute in their stores," Komorowski says.
Explaining product-specific research in newsletters and when making recommendations are two ways retailers can let their customers know which products have scientific research to support their claims. It starts with manufacturers and suppliers sponsoring research and communicating results to retailers, but then retailers must use this information and explain it to shoppers. Most agree this process is critical to the dietary supplements industry.
Ziegenfuss sums it up thusly: "I think research is the future of the industry or there may be no industry. Either the industry has to regulate itself with research or the government will. The companies that do sponsor research are getting proactive with that mission and are the ones that will survive. The rogue companies that don't sponsor research and just want to take consumers' money are going to fall by the wayside. And that will be good; ultimately it will make the whole industry better."
Dena Nishek is a freelance writer and editor based in Boulder, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 6/p. 36, 38, 40
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 6/p. 40