Editorial: Industry's Meta-Analysis Hangover

By Len Monheit
[email protected]

Over the past few weeks, the effect of 'research' on the market has been dramatically illustrated. I'm speaking of course, of the Vitamin E meta-analysis released a few weeks ago by researchers at JohnsHopkinsUniversity. It is significant to note that while positive research takes years to build into a sustainable market, negative research can kill a market quite effectively - in a matter of days, undoing what took years to build.

A survey commissioned by the Dietary Supplement Education Alliance (DSIB) indicates that, currently, 18 percent of Americans are less likely to take vitamin E based on the news of a few weeks ago. So not only is there an immediate and definite economic impact, as the DSIB release points out, with the substantiated and scientifically supported benefits of Vitamin E, there is the real potential of a negative health impact as a result of the behavior the 'study' results has caused. Perhaps the effect will be partially offset by efforts of DSIB, NNFA, CRN and others who are attempting to provide views and ammunition to refute the scientific basis of the meta-analysis and provide educational resources to retailers, the professional community and to confused consumers.

Over the past number of years, it has become increasingly evident that functional food and supplement market growth would benefit significantly by heightening product and ingredient awareness, and promoting substantiated benefits to mainstream consumers - those not part of the current core market, however it is 'labeled'. Yet this is the group that is the most vulnerable to negative coverage, and with each episode, becomes more skeptical about the benefits of supplementation or fortification.

So, a decided strategy for a group intent on stifling serious market growth, could ideally be to blanket this audience with a barrage of information that raised doubt, caused confusion, and product by product, category by category, health condition by health condition, undermined any evidential base and benefit, or at least challenged the potential benefits with equally persuasive risks. And when you compound this confusion by the confusion that industry persists in creating for itself internally or through gross lapses in quality and compliance - whether the product is ginseng or multivitamins, it paints a pretty bleak picture.

As Sun Tzu would say (paraphrasing liberally), knowing your enemies and detractors and understanding the actions and recourses open to them, allows one to plan both offence and defense to eliminate, restrict or otherwise affect those options.

It is probably fair to say that industry is better positioned to take this type of stance than it was several years ago. Voluntary standards and category working groups, and the efforts of several industry organizations on numerous fronts have certainly helped the cause, in presenting science, in defending attacks, in raising the bar, and in expanding internal communication and dialogue that makes better use of resources to both attack and defend.

The current Vitamin E 'situation' suggests a few 'should be's':

  • The higher the credibility of an institution, theoretically, the higher the accountability they should have not only for the results they present, but also the effect of those results.
  • The perversion, misuse or selective presentation of data is a real concern.
  • It would be nice if there were clear definitions and parameters, well understood by everyone, that existed for studies in general and meta-analyses in particular. Is it feasible to restrict 'legitimate' meta-analyses to those studies where ‘identical’ forms and 'similar' endpoints were identified - in the original study itself? Or would this too closely restrict research and extrapolation of results?

This incident underscores too well industry's vulnerability. Are other sectors and categories as vulnerable? Could the omega-3 category be undermined by a concerted strategy to loosely or even directly associate heavy metal or pesticide content in source material with health risk of finished products? If the answer is yes, are all possible steps being explored on a category basis to eliminate this possibility? Is there a lurking isomer issue, that when realized and exploited, invalidates an entire body of science and changes the entire risk/benefit equation?

It is obvious that industry battlegrounds will most likely be where the stakes are highest, in the top health conditions receiving media attention and with the highest financial incentives. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer, while providing the most significant opportunities, also provide the highest likelihood of challenge, undermining and direct attack. "Forewarned is Fore-armed", as they say.

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