Is Current Dietary Supplement Research Doing More Harm Than Good?


“Massive study casts doubt on health benefits of multivitamins.”

“Study says Echinacea has no effect on colds.”

“Latest study: Antioxidant supplements may kill you.”

In recent years, such grim headlines have fostered skepticism among would-be consumers of dietary supplements and generated concern among industry experts who fear that the research long heralded as key to driving broad acceptance of their products could—if mishandled or conducted inappropriately—do more harm than good for the sale and reputation of dietary supplements. At issue is whether the randomized controlled trial (RCT)—considered the “gold standard” for assessing pharmaceuticals—is appropriate for determining what impact a nutrient or botanical has on human health. Increasingly, many believe it is not.

But poorly designed trials aren’t the only factors threatening dietary supplement research. Facing a lean economy, mounting expenses associated with the newly instituted Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), and frustration over the continued piracy of positive study results, many companies are holding back their research dollars. “We are stuck in a paradigm of low margins and very little intellectual property protection and that undermines interest in investing in R and D,” said Andrew Shao, vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition. “The industry hasn’t been as involved as many people would like when it comes to funding research, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.”

Meanwhile, after years of increased public funding for dietary supplement research, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), is now facing flattened budgets and appears to be heading back to the drawing board with the study of dietary supplements. In fact, NCCAM officials say they intend to place more emphasis on laboratory tests looking at the mechanism of action of supplements, and less on broad-based human clinical trials.

Private and public interests alike also plan to hunker down in the coming years in an effort to come up with better models for studies and better incentives for companies to invest in research, but meaningful progress in these areas will take time. “This is going to require an evolution on the part of the industry,” said Shao. “The days of trying to obtain really dramatic results relatively quickly may be over.”

Nutrition Business Journal dives deep into the world of dietary supplement research in our 2009 U.S. Nutrition Industry Overview issue, which will publish in July and be distributed at the 2009 NBJ Summit, July 22-24. To order your copy of the issue, subscribe to NBJ or download a free 32-page sample issue, go to www.nutritionbusinessjournal.com. To register for the NBJ Summit, go to www.nbjsummit.com.

Related NBJ links:
Briggs: Supplement Use Is Being Influenced by Science
Research, Practitioner Education Increase Sales for Metagenics
New Research Strengthens Calcium’s Story

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