Natural Foods Merchandiser

Research: An Unsung Member of the Sales Team

From "Behind The Label: A Guide For Retailers," A Supplement to Natural Foods Merchandiser


Have you ever cringed when you overheard an employee pitching a supplement? Perhaps he was comparing two products for a customer and got some of the science confused. Your store's reputation—and the industry's—is on the line, so educating your staff about product-specific research is paramount. Knowledge puts you in a position of power when making purchasing decisions and recommendations to customers.

Everyone can claim, especially face to face, that their product is the Holy Grail
Some staff members may balk at the thought of sifting through stacks of research papers, but to be a valuable part of the sales team, they should know which products have solid research backing them. Sonja Tuitele, director of corporate communications for Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets, says the company encourages its natural-living employees to keep up with their reading. "We find in that department, because people are interested in working with those types of products—vitamins and supplements and herbal remedies—they tend to have an interest, so they will do their own reading and keep up on studies." Being able to critically evaluate medical literature, then, becomes a useful business skill.

"I think research has to be one of the most important things a retailer looks at, because it is going to reflect on their store," says Jim Komorowski, director of technical services and scientific affairs at Nutrition 21 in Purchase, N.Y. "Whatever product they're selling or promoting on their shelves, I would think they would want it to be the most efficacious and customer-satisfying product."

But how do you know what's what when you're awash in marketing materials from manufacturers making promises about their products? Examining the research is the only way to distinguish between those with product-specific science and those promoted by what Anthony Almada, founder and chief scientific officer of IMAGINutrition in Laguna Niguel, Calif., calls "nutritional evangelists."

"Everyone can claim, especially face to face, that their product is the Holy Grail," Almada says. "But how many of them can claim with logical, independent science—which is the only divining rod— that this product works or it doesn't work compared with somebody else's or compared with placebo?"

Almada notes that it is easy to be lulled by earnest sales reps with great stories, but if they can't show you the science, you should tell them their lack of substantiation will be factored into your buying decision and your staff's recommendations.

When looking at research, there are several questions to ask: Was the product in question actually used in the study? It should be specified by name, typically in the "methods" section of the report. Was the study conducted using humans? What was the dose and how was it delivered? What were the results?

"If the retailer finds in the papers that the product has been called out by name, that it was delivered orally, that the dose is realistic, [then the retailer can] advocate it with confidence," Almada says.

Valerie Rodrigues, Apple Health Foods' store manager in Redwood City, Calif., gathers information on the products her store carries from sales representatives, books, articles, National Nutritional Foods Association updates and research reports. Research factors into her buying decisions, but sometimes, she says, she has to dig to get the full picture. "There's research that's been done in petri dishes, [or using] laboratory rats; then there's some research that's been done with humans in double-blind, placebo-controlled studies," Rodrigues says. "[A study's impact] depends on the actual research that's been done."

Following up on claims and reviewing research isn't always easy, but Almada recommends easing the burden by shifting some of this work back to manufacturers' sales reps. "The retailer can say, 'I don't have time to sift through your articles to find out where your product or ingredient is called out by name. Can you underline that and how it was delivered—orally, in a beverage, in a baked good—and the dosage subjects received per day? Can you highlight this information for me so I can show it to my customers?'" Sharing this boiled-down information with your staff will save them from feeling overwhelmed by full-length research papers. Manufacturers with product-specific science should be happy to supply this type of information.

"A lot of the clinical trials that [manufacturers] use to document their structure/function claims are based on proprietary products," says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council.

Differentiating between product-specific research and "borrowed" science is an important distinction. The problem is that not many companies are doing product-specific research. Instead, they're content to refer to other companies' research. "If a company says its ginkgo is different from everybody else's, which every botanical manufacturer says, then that would mean it would behave differently biologically than everybody else's," Almada says. "And if [that particular ginkgo] isn't studied for its biological effects, then it may not work like the one that has been studied. It may not work at all or it may work better, but if you don't know, how can you say?"

Nutrition 21's Komorowski sees a lot of companies borrowing science. "It is a way of trying to say you have substantiation but, for instance, in minerals there is a big difference between forms. We see it in the chromium market where we've invested millions of dollars in research [on chromium picolinate]. There are other forms of chromium that [companies] will claim in their marketing material to have efficacy for a certain indication—maybe it's diabetes or cholesterol or weight loss—and they've never done any studies in those [groups of patients]; they just say, 'We're a form of chromium, too.'"

Rodrigues says she'll tell shoppers which products were studied specifically, but will also offer "less expensive but equal quality" alternatives that she believes "are also very good and will likely provide the same results."

Blumenthal says some of the generics probably work well; to think otherwise "dismisses hundreds of years" of use by Native Americans, Chinese and other traditional cultures. Still, he says, "I want to support the companies that have supported the research."

One tool available to retailers is The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs (Thieme New York, 2003). It cross-references the 29 most popular herbs in the United States, as well as 13 proprietary products, with their clinical studies."It shows which are the most researched without endorsing any of them," Blumenthal says.

The education process is ongoing, but your dedication to the research will likely inspire your staff. In the end, the time spent will benefit your customers and your bottom line.

Dena Nishek is a freelance writer and editor in Boulder, Colo.

Tips For Evaluating Research Reports

So they say they have "science." The manufacturer has even given you a stack of papers to review. What do you look for? How do you know if it is relevant information? Anthony Almada, B.Sc., M.Sc., a nutrition and exercise biochemist who has collaborated on more than 45 university-based studies and is founder and chief scientific officer of Laguna Niguel, Calif.-based IMAGINutrition, advises retailers to look at the following:

  • Dose—Does the dose used in the study match the dose recommended on the product label? Is an efficacious dose affordable?

  • Delivery—How was the dose delivered in the study? If it was intravenous, the results do not directly apply. If it was delivered in a beverage in the study and the manufacturer is selling a capsule, ask for research on the capsule.

  • Human study—Results of research done with animals may not be relevant in human applications.

  • Specificity—Was the product tested for the condition it is claimed to be effective for? If product X was tested for blood glucose control in diabetics, but is being marketed for weight loss in healthy adults, ask for research specific to that application.

  • Conflicts of interest—Who did the study? Was it the patent holder? Was it the owner of the company that sells the product? This can be difficult to determine because conflicts of interest aren't always disclosed.

  • Publication in a peer-reviewed journal—Established peer-reviewed journals have strict publication criteria.

Beware of abstracts and papers presented at meetings; Almada says most of these are not peer reviewed and most papers presented at meetings are never published in peer-reviewed journals. Often, manufacturers will try to pass these materials off as peer-reviewed literature. Ask for a copy of the original research.

Know the Lingo

Here are some research terms you'll see in medical literature. Don't be intimidated.

Abstract—A summary of an article. Abstracts don't always provide all of the information you need to evaluate the research.

Double blind—A scientific investigation technique in which neither the subject nor the investigator knows what treatment, if any, the subject is receiving. This method attempts to eliminate bias.

In vitro—Literally, in glass. This type of experiment is performed in the laboratory, usually with isolated tissue, organ or cell preparations. If the results of an in vitro study are positive, this does not necessarily mean the preparation will have the same effect in humans.

In vivo—Literally, in the living body. An in vivo experiment is conducted using living subjects—animals or humans. Results of human studies carry more weight than animal research.

Meta-analysis—A statistical procedure for combining data from several studies to analyze the effectiveness of a particular treatment.

Placebo controlled—A type of study in which one group of patients is given an inactive substance (placebo) and a similar group is given the material being tested.

Statistical significance—If the results of an experiment are determined not to be due to chance, then the results are considered statistically significant.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.