Will ginkgo sales continue to slip following recent JAMA study?

By now you likely have read the headlines that followed the ginkgo biloba study published in the December 29 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). According to the study, ginkgo biloba does not slow the rate of cognitive decline in older adults. “Ginkgo suffers another blow” is how one online publication described the news. Wrote TIME magazine: “Study: Ginkgo Flunks Test as a Brain Booster.” In November 2008, data from this same ginkgo trial was published in JAMA. It showed that the botanical supplement did not prevent the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), the American Herbal Product Association (AHPA) and the American Botanical Council (ABC) have all publicly voiced concerns over the study. CRN cautioned that cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are multi-factorial chronic conditions and that no “magic bullet” solution to these conditions has been found, while AHPA contended that the study does not undermine existing positive research on ginkgo. ABC urged the public to focus on the “well-documented cognitive and cardiovascular benefits of ginkgo” and pointed out the several “significant limitations” of the JAMA study, including the advanced age of the study participants and the fact that tracking cognitive decline was not a primary outcome measure of the trial.

Although the industry has been quick to respond to the JAMA study, many botanical supplement companies are likely wondering whether the onslaught of negative news headlines that followed the study’s publication will cause at least some consumers to stop purchasing ginkgo biloba all together. The answer, unfortunately, is yes. High-profile studies that produce unfavorable press have been shown to affect consumer spending, even when those studies have been flawed or the media coverage has been inaccurate or skewed. In 2007, ginkgo sales grew 4% to $107 million. Sales then declined 8% to $99 million in 2008. While it’s nearly impossible to determine just how big of an effect the media coverage fueled by the 2008 JAMA article had on consumer spending, Nutrition Business Journal has seen progressive declines in other supplement categories following extensive negative media coverage.

For example, consumers have lost confidence in vitamin E due to the barrage of negative news stories that have followed the publication of unfavorable clinical research results. In 1999, U.S. consumers spent more than $868 million on vitamin E supplements, but over a nine-year span the category lost more than half of its overall value to total just $361 million in 2008, according to NBJ estimates. Such losses belie the fact that much of the recent vitamin E research has been questionable, particularly the now-infamous 2005 meta-analysis which found that high doses of vitamin E could increase mortality and should be avoided.

St. John’s wort is another supplement that has been negatively impacted by negative research and changing consumer perceptions. Sales of this botanical topped the $300 million mark in 1998, but fell to $55 million in 2008, as many former buyers have turned elsewhere for their mood enhancement needs.

The message industry needs to pound home to consumers is one that CRN brought up in its response to JAMA’s most recent article on ginkgo: that purchasing decisions should be based on more than the (sometimes inaccurately) reported research results of one study. “As a former practicing licensed naturopathic doctor, I have had the benefit of working with patients and have seen first-hand how ginkgo biloba can be effective in improving cognitive function,” said Douglas MacKay, ND, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for CRN. “In an area where there are few other safe, affordable options, I would hate to see this study send the wrong message to consumers.”

Related NBJ links:
Will JAMA Study Linking Folic Acid to Cancer Affect Consumer Sales?
Is Current Dietary Supplement Research Doing More Harm Than Good for Companies?
AHPA’s Key Points on JAMA’s St. John’s Wort, ADHD Study

Related Functional Ingredients magazine links:
Brainy Ingredients Get Brawny

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