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Conditional acceptanceConditional acceptance

As faith in food grows, is condition-specific the best selling point for supplements?

September 1, 2015

9 Min Read
Conditional acceptance

The supplement industry is forever an industry in search of new paradigms with message often flickering urgently between an avenue to optimal health and an alternative answer for chronic conditions—in both cases almost always colored as an antidote to the stress and nutritional mayhem of modern life.

But now, with a not-so-new antidote to modern life attracting a greater share of faith and trust, the message burning brightest for supplements may turn out to be those chronic conditions. The future of the supplement industry, it seems, may be decided on a condition-by-condition basis, and the driver for this trend line, however ironically, may lie in a healthy diet.

NBJ consumer survey data suggests consumers, driven by exploding awareness and availability of natural and organic food, are increasingly seeing diet as a complete nutritional answer. At the same time, trust in supplements seems unsteady or falling. In an NBJ consumer survey earlier this year, “I believe that I get enough nutrition from my diet” was the main reason people quit buying supplements. Supplements were tied with GMO foods as a “safest product category.”


 Supplements were once seen as a vital complement to a broken food system over-populated with over-processed products. With food now promising more nutrients, and a chorus from the medical establishment proclaiming vitamins and minerals a waste of money, supplements as support for basic health and wellness may increasingly appear superfluous to consumers who have convinced themselves they are eating healthier.

In that light, condition-specific emerges as the place where supplements can still claim a right to win. Indeed, multivitamins slipped from 6.3 percent growth to 3 percent in 2014, while melatonin, though slower than 2013, is still growing at 15 percent.

Melatonin is a good example of the power of condition-specific. Warm milk is a traditional sleep aid, but supplements still promise a punch that’s hard to find in food.

Kyle Garner calls that increasing faith in the produce section part of a “food awakening.” It’s an awakening the natural product industry has long worked to realize, the
Organic India CEO says. It’s also something the supplement industry can applaud, and capitalize on, he suggests.

More faith in food does not have to mean less faith in supplements.

“What we think will happen is that the food awakening that this population is experiencing will open their eyes to the need for supplementation and, more specifically, what kinds of supplementation they need,” Garner says, explaining that exploding awareness of organic and natural food brought in consumers who might never have thought past the letter vitamins.
Michael Mooney at Super Nutrition is a skeptic on the likelihood of modern food products, organic or otherwise, meeting people’s nutritional needs, but he is also convinced there is tectonic change at play. “Whether it’s taking foods in a tablet or juicing them or eating organic, it’s an interesting shifting of the tides,” Mooney says.

 Garner sees the people riding that tide as a contingent of consumers who can more clearly see diet and lifestyle as a viable healthy strategy instead of accepting the steady march towards statins and the rest of the polypharmacy that many Americans seem to accept as a process of aging and accumulating conditions.  “That is what opens them up to say ‘What does turmeric do for you? What does ginger do for you?’”

Transforming that awareness into purchasing patterns is not guaranteed, Garner says, but he sees momentum. “The mom at the grocery story buying calcium isn’t going to suddenly wake up one day and say ‘Oh, I am going to try Ayurvedic herbs,’” Garner says.

But the mom paying more for organic food has already accepted that nutrition is essential for her health.


Scooped solutions

Some of the momentum Garner hopes for may be spinning in a blender near you. Powdered “greens” and boosts for smoothies could be the place where supplements and the food awakening intersect. People looking for a one-meal-meets-all package often turn to smoothies, particularly as breakfast, and want to fit in at least some of those five daily serving of fruits and vegetables they know they are not getting. Powdered greens promise that vitality by the scoop.

Some could argue that it’s hardly enough of the micronutrients, and that the people using the products are aware of that. “If you’re talking about a 25-year-old woman who’s anemic, I don’t think she’s saying ‘I will eat a kale and fruit smoothie for supper and that will do the trick,’” says product development expert Laure Clardy. But the Nutrimarketing president also believes that the food/supplement crossover based in general wellness could make a transition into condition specific applications “I’d like to walk over to the yogurt case, right next to all of the other yogurts and see bone-health pearls or something like that,” Clardy says. “If I can get my joint care ingredients from a fruit puree that’s power packed with chia, but also has curcumin and things in there for joint care, I think that’s where the industry is going to have to go.”

Garner already sees that happening. “You see the market going there,” Garner says. “Whether it’s booster for smoothies or launching these $8 cold-pressed juices that are dialed up with herbal extracts”

A “whole” new ballgame

The food awakening awareness scooping its way into those smoothies could also be a factor behind the growth of whole food supplements, a segment growing at more than 14 percent, nearly triple the supplement market’s overall 5.1 percent.

Taking the whole food supplement concept into condition-specific formulations and doses, however, could force a bit of rethinking, or re-blending, on the part of  manufacturers. Stacy Gillespie is the product developers for MegaFood, a brand with a flagship presence in whole food supplements. Gillespie says customers attracted to the whole food supplement are easily amenable to supplementing the supplement, taking the dosage up from the lower potencies associated with whole food supplements to therapeutic levels. A realization that food has benefits took consumers to whole food supplements that deliver those benefits in a more concentrated form. It’s a relatively short walk from there to condition-specific, she says.

That transition is particularly important with younger consumers. Millennials grew up without the blind faith in pharmaceuticals of earlier generations, and supplements closer to food—like those whole-food capsules and the smoothie bursts—are going to have an easier appeal.


When it gets hard

Kate Quackenbush, director of communications for Nattopharma, says products like the company’s K2 supplement can’t always point to an obvious food connection. For ingredients like theirs, it gets technical. “While vitamin K1 is found in green leafy vegetables, such as broccoli, spinach and kale, and is easy to incorporate into one’s diet, the more beneficial vitamin K2 is difficult to come by through diet alone,” Quackenbush says. People have so little knowledge of K2, a supplement with benefits for bone and heart health that they probably haven’t heard of it, much less know where they can find it in food. The best source, she says, is Natto, a fermented soybean dish eaten in Japan. “But it is a dish that few Westerners have heard of, and even less can stomach.”

Mooney’s Super Nutrition  sells K2 products and Mooney believes that some of the same challenges that people face with food, they face with supplements. They want something easy, Mooney says, recalling how he dealt with his own troubling cholesterol numbers with diet and supplements to the astonishment of his cardiac specialist. Doctors are very aware how rare it is for somebody to take the nutrition approach, Mooney says. “They’re going to talk to one person every six months who would actually do something besides take the pill,” he says.

Finding the right supplement usually takes more research and initiative than getting a prescription from a doctor. Diet can be even more challenging. It appears too difficult for too many people to achieve optimum health, much less cope with conditions, through food. “If we ate all the stuff  we were supposed to eat, I wouldn’t be buying a special gelatin supplement,” Mooney says, referring to one of the products that helped him achieve his cholesterol turnaround.

People need to know where they are deficient and where those deficiencies are taking them, Mooney says. And all of that needs to become easier for people to quantify, and to understand.

“The educational part,” Mooney says. “There is definitely a lot of work to be done there.”

Diet and diagnosis

Nattopharma has taken on a big education challenge with K2, but education is always a challenge with condition-specific. For our healthy solutions issue, NBJ conducted online consumer research to see how healthcare and nutrition choices are driven by concern vs. diagnosis across five different conditions: digestive health, metabolic health, cognitive health, bone health and cardiac health. We asked respondents to answer questions based on whether they had been diagnosed and were seeing a doctor vs. more generally concerned about a health issue. The results (see page 5) suggest that education remains paramount. While people under a doctor’s care were more likely to take supplements for every condition but cognitive, we saw zero difference between  “diagnosed” and “concerned” in bone health, where decades of education have brought consumers an awareness of nutrition strategies.

Education, however, remains as tricky a place as ever. Natural Product Association Executive Director Dan Fabricant says the bigger the push, the bigger the chances for violating claims regulation. Matters become particularly complicated when social media testimonials spin in. “Don’t think that the regulatory agencies aren’t hip to that,” Fabricant said.

As he warned when he was leading supplement enforcement, too many marketing teams are wandering too close to the province of medicine. “You’re getting into an area where you are not going to be able to walk it back from,” Fabricant says.

Of food and pharma

Helios Corp. President Michael Jeffers doesn’t shy away from comparing supplements to pharmaceutical intervention. Pharma offers benefits that food can’t, and so do supplements, Jeffers says.

Supplement companies could be making too much of the food connection, he says. It’s almost a step backward. DSHEA, Jeffers believes, drove the industry toward science. The NDI process, in particular, helped innovators look past traditional herbs and vitamins to discover more effective treatments.  “To get an NDI you have to have clinical evidence,” Jeffers says.

When people suffer from a condition, they are looking for science, not a food or folklore, Jeffers maintains. The role of supplements, he says, is “providing consumers with choices that they didn’t have before.”

The time has come to stop fighting pharma and start emulating pharma, Jeffer says. For condition-specific it’s about options and evidence, not tradition or wholesome vitality. That’s what pharma does. “We’re going to swim in those same waters,” Jeffers says. “That’s our business model. That’s what we’re about. We’re going to deliver exceptional ingredients with exceptional science.”

Consumers won’t find that, Jeffers says, in the produce section. 

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