Natural Foods Merchandiser

Q & A with Steven Mister of CRN

Q: What factors led to last year’s growth in supplement sales?
A: What we saw last year is the result of several different things coming together. First, we had consumers’ continued interest in health and wellness. People are more aware that what they eat and what supplements they take (or don’t take) can have a positive or negative effect on their health.

Second, our products historically do well during a recession. People are scared of losing a job and losing health care and not being able to afford being sick, so they try to keep themselves healthy.

Third, we had swine flu as a major health concern. We don’t have products that prevent or cure or treat H1N1, but it was another reminder to people that they’re vulnerable to these [types of diseases], and that they can do things to keep themselves generally healthy. Supplements play into that.

Fourth, we had the financial crisis, which hurts people’s confidence in big institutions. Consumers are distrustful of banking, of government, of health care. They may think: I don’t trust Washington to take care of me, so I need to take care of myself.

Q: What is the hottest supplement right now?
A: Vitamin D continues to do well. It’s not just about the prevention of rickets. Research shows it supports bone health, immune health and may reduce the risk of certain types of cancers. Vitamin D is interesting because there are two kinds of research: One is showing the benefits of vitamin D, and the other is showing just how deficient we are in vitamin D. Those two types of research are really putting the spotlight on vitamin D right now.

Q: Will new supplements legislation be passed in 2010?
A: Even though [Sen.] McCain (R-Ariz.) has withdrawn his support of the [supplement safety] legislation, we’re not out of the woods. We will continue to see a push for legislation dealing with sports supplements. It might come from Sen. Specter (D-Pa.) putting more things on the controlled substances list. Or it might come from Senators Hatch (R-Utah) and Harkin (D-Iowa) if they could come up with a full implementation of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act that gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration more resources for enforcement of existing laws.

The other thing we’ll need to watch is what’s going on at the Federal Trade Commission with advertising. People forget that the FTC regulates supplements advertising claims, not the FDA. It’s a different FTC under David Vladeck. We’re already seeing warning letters and dissent decrees that they’re negotiating. The FTC is trying to push us to more stringent levels of substantiation to back up claims.

Some late-night supplements infomercials go too far—we can’t deny that—but I don’t think this industry is prepared to accept a standard that says you have to have two randomized clinical trials on your specific product conducted by two independent experts before you make a claim. That’s a bit ridiculous. Vitamin C is vitamin C. As long as you’re using it in similar levels and it’s likely to be bioavailable in the same amount, shouldn’t you be able to piggyback on other research without testing your specific product?

We’re going to have problems with the FTC, and we will have to organize as an industry to address them. That’s where a trade association can come into play. We can speak collectively on behalf of companies.

Q: What will happen to supplements sales in 2010?
A: We saw some movement in the category toward lower-priced options and store brands last year. As the economy picks up, we may see movement back toward higher price points and boutique brands, but I think we’ll continue to see decent growth in the industry like we did last year.

–Interview by Pamela Bond

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