At a time when the efficacy of supplements is often in question, the growing scientific validation for the role vitamins and minerals can play in health and disease prevention is a refreshing change. But can the renewed interest in these building-block nutrients offer a breath of fresh air to the supplements industry? Potentially.
Without question, up-to-date and emerging science drives the dietary-supplements industry, says Todd Sitkowski, senior marketing manager, DSM Nutritional Products. This is evident with the substantial increase in single entity vitamin D-3 sales, which are up more than 100 per cent, according to recent IRI data. The growth, he contends, can be attributed to the continuous stream of science and news reports about D-3. "Credible, relevant, well-balanced science in a simple-to-understand format drives consumer interest and, ultimately, purchasing behaviour."
To be sure, there is some intriguing new science regarding selenium and cancer, calcium and weight loss, and vitamin K for cancer, as well as cardiovascular and bone health. For vitamin D, it goes beyond diabetes, cancer and bone health, with potential new links to autism, depression, Parkinson's disease and auto-immune function. But much of the research warrants further study to make the kinds of claims the FDA allows on a supplements-facts label. So, most ingredients suppliers and marketers are proceeding with caution.
Despite all the news about vitamin D, for example, there has not been much movement by those best poised to take advantage of it. The big pharmaceutical companies should be increasing the vitamin D in their multivitamins, says Tim Avila, a long-time industry marketer and CEO of ZSweet. "But we haven't seen any company marshal this data and do a PR campaign. It baffles me. But maybe vitamins and minerals just aren't sexy enough."
Whether or not they pass the sexy test, most of these nutrients have been on the scene for a long time, and what is now being seen as new novel uses may not be all that new. In some cases, researchers have been looking at these nutrients for decades, so the buzz they can create in the market, even with new findings, is often less than sensational. At the very least, it is a big investment and a long-term play. "Everyone is looking for new uses for an ingredient," notes Anthony Almada of Imaginutrition. But think about how many ingredients have been launched that have not gotten any real traction. "Fish oil and calcium are hot right now, but that started in 1980 — it's been 30 years in the making," he says.
As the studies are published, they have to go out to the media and then get written about, says Eric Anderson, brand manager for PL Thomas' vitamin-K ingredient MenaQ7. Obligatory PR activity to the trade includes education efforts to manufacturers and retailers, and then creating pull in the market. "It takes time," Anderson says. "Vitamin K has some interesting science, but it has taken eight to 10 years to get recognized."
Evolution of science
Part of the issue is that researchers are only just beginning to understand how nutrients impact health. "The science is always evolving, and it could always be better, but it will never be complete," says Andrew Shao, PhD, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition. It comes down to whether the science will support appropriate structure/function or health claims, Shao says. Companies are left with rather limited options to communicate complex issues.
And that is not likely to change anytime soon. There is a long-standing and fundamental problem in the way the medical establishment views vitamins and minerals, says Loren Israelsen, executive director of United Natural Products Alliance. "ADA nutritionists still see nutrients as a means to prevent deficiencies. But we look at nutrients as having sub-therapeutic and therapeutic benefits."
Designing good studies is problematic, adds Shao. Nutrients don't behave like drugs, so they don't fit nicely into the randomized. controlled trial paradigm. "It is not a placebo vs an active. It's one level of the nutrient vs another level of the nutrient.
"I wouldn't advocate eliminating randomized, controlled trials," Shao says, "but designing them the right way and putting in the measurements to account for these differences is impossible in some cases." Another barrier, Shao says, is good biomarkers for measuring chronic disease. "They are difficult to establish and validate, so we have very few."
As a result, even good science may not have a significant impact on the market, and poor studies create confusion resulting in even poorer claims. Qualified health claims are in a quandary, complains Scott Hagerman, president of ChemiNutra. "The FDA doesn't have a protocol, so the claims are very different and confusing - there's no pattern. It seems there is no near-term solution. The FDA is so under funded they can't build a system that will equalize all the health claims."
In the absence of a new paradigm, progress may have to be measured in other ways, says Robert Heaney, PhD, of Creighton University, a leading researcher on vitamin D and calcium. "It may be that the application doesn't really matter, if we can reach consensus on the need for intakes to increase. Let's say there is good reason to think that increased intakes of vitamin D and calcium will reduce hypertension. If the intakes go up and it also helps prevent cancer, then we will achieve that effect as well."
The necessity of science
So what are companies to do? Buckle down and do the best science you can, says Paul Willis, CEO/president of Cypress Systems. The industry has gotten away from the scientific gold standard and evolved into a business of pursuing healthy, quality ingredients and their related claims. It has to stem from the science, he says. "Not to do so weakens our position. Those who can, need to pony up and do the research."
"Scientific studies have always been the backbone of our marketing efforts," says Wouter Claerhout, global marketing manager, fat-soluble vitamins for DSM. "DSM is only making efforts for ingredients that have a proven activity. Our customers also require scientific support for claims that they intend to make with our ingredients."
Indeed, raw-materials suppliers say that they are under ever greater pressure to provide scientific support for their ingredients. Like DSM, Lonza welcomes this added rigour. "We encourage our customer base to request the science behind the products we use and the statements we make," a company spokesman says.
"We have to show the benefits and advantages of our particular product," agrees Max Motyka, director of marketing and sales for Albion Human Nutrition. "Once they buy in, we have to support their efforts by promoting the ingredient through trade and medical magazines. And then we have to create pull through from the end users."
Albion sees the Internet as a critical aspect of consumer marketing, especially for younger generations, who use it routinely to get their health information. Another effective tool is health radio shows, adds Motyka, who says they have had good luck communicating complex scientific information through interviews with their experts.
There is no question that science, along with a good story, can be a powerful tool in communicating to consumers. Cypress Systems, maker of a proprietary selenium, has taken that theory to a new level by hiring Mark Whitacre, PhD. Whitacre earned his PhD in nutritional biochemistry from Cornell University, and is an early expert in selenium. He is also the subject of an upcoming feature film called The Informant, detailing his whistleblowing activity for price fixing in the 1990s, which will raise awareness about selenium. "We are working with our branding partners now, so after Mark is on TV, we want people to go and ask for that selenium they were talking about on Oprah."
Marketing through Oprah and other mass-media programmes is a sure-fire way to create buzz, but few companies will have that kind of opportunity. A more feasible strategy for suppliers is the "Intel Inside" model, according to Almada. "But I don't think we'll see buzz come from ingredients suppliers. They don't see the end users as their target market. Intel markets its product to consumers. But what ingredients company is marketing that way on a mass scale?"
There are some companies pursuing the strategy, but again it is a long-term and expensive proposition. Albion initiated its Gold Medallion programme, which offers companies a link to the Albion website, some consumer advertising and the opportunity to use the Albion Gold Medallion on their product labels. "It is not easy to convince a company to put your marks on their label," says Motyka. "The challenge is to make consumers understand, so you have to get the concept in front of them in as many places as you can."
In the meantime, researchers will continue to seek answers and the debate over deficiencies and intakes will continue. Traditional RDAs are set up to avoid deficiencies, but the real potential for vitamins and minerals is to understand nutritional inadequacies that will have impact on long-term health. "As we see these answers, it will pump life into the industry," Shao says.