Condition-specific: Take two health claims and call me in the morning

One might think a $4 trillion US health-care system would mean Americans live perfectly healthy lives until they are 125, then die peacefully in their sleep. Alas, it is not so.

Ageing boomers in particular are growing in their acceptance of natural products and supplements marketed for conditions such as heart health, bone health and immune function.

According to Nutrition Business Journal (NBJ), the trend is increasing in its market share against OTC and Rx spending. The top-16 health conditions account for 92 per cent of 2007 US supplements sales; top categories include cold/flu/immune, joint health, heart health and bone health, which align with current growing health concerns:
Heart health (15.9 per cent growth)
Bone health (11.3 per cent growth)
Gastrointestinal health (11.9 per cent growth)
Brain health/mental acuity (12.7 per cent growth)

From a supplier and manufacturer perspective, there is no question that marketing to a specific condition has impact. The strategy helps companies take advantage of CPG marketing basics and bridges the knowledge gap for consumers. While consumers might know of ingredients like prebiotics, glucosamine and phytosterols, they may be a long way from understanding what those ingredients do from a health perspective, according to Greg Stephens, RD, vice president of strategic consulting at the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI).

Condition-specific marketing helps move things along on the continuum, he says. Quoting data from previous NMI 'Health and Wellness Trends Reports,' Stephens notes that consumer awareness of prebiotics as a digestive aid was relatively low at 3.4 per cent in 2004, but jumped to 14 per cent by 2007. Similarly, DHA omega-3s for cognitive health saw a meteoric rise in consumer awarensss from 2006 to 2007, jumping from four per cent to 12 per cent.

The strategy also helped prompt a body of research that in turn builds consumer credibility and trust. Martek has been instrumental in advancing the research and building consumer awareness for DHA and cognitive health. The supplier primarily works with big food companies to educate them about DHA, why it is important for health and the conditions it addresses, says Martek spokesperson, Cassy France-Kelly. "But they decide how to market."

France-Kelly notes that there is a fine line in deciding what claims or conditions to tout. As people get older they are looking for more benefits, but they may not want to think specifically about conditions or disease. "A more generalised structure-function claim may play better and be better understood," she says.

Claims are clearly the sticky wicket in pursuing a condition-based approach. Experts note that true compliance, which includes an appropriate structure-function claim, proper disclaimers and FDA notification, may only be at about 50 per cent. In their defense, companies must navigate the confusing and limited regulatory environment for health claims, as well as invest in company-sponsored research.

Without proprietary, company-sponsored research — a costly proposition — claims often end up sounding almost the same. A further challenge is the lack of sufficient, scientifically validated biomarkers for disease, says Andrew Shao, PhD, VP of scientific and regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition. For example, blood-sugar levels may be a good indicator for diabetes, but they are not the only factor in risk reduction. "This is what companies are looking at to support their strucuture-function claims. ?And this is why we have so few claims and may not get many more," Shao says.

Despite these difficulties, the condition-specific strategy is one of the few areas for supplements showing growth. According to NMI's 2007 'Health and Wellness Report,' the number of consumers who said they use condition-specific products has doubled between 2000 and 2007.

And there are still categories to build. The benchmark for true consumer acceptance is relatively high, Stephens adds. "Calcium for bone health is at 70 per cent," he says. "Oats comes in at around 40 per cent and you know General Mills has put a $50 million effort behind that. If those are the kind of numbers you need, then that is the kind of effort it will take to bring awareness up for products and make them a mainstream force."

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