Editorial: Is Neutral the New Up?

It’s been a rough couple weeks for the dietary supplements sector.

A study recently published in the Archives of Internal Medicine failed to show any correlation between multivitamin consumption and risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, merely the latest in an accumulating list of neutral, non-supportive studies involving supplements and natural health products. CRN was quick to comment on the role of these products in maintaining health, while the Natural Products Association, in its response to news of the study, noted that the statement of results fails to consider how supplements are regulated and ignores the very principle of health claims, which are offered (allowed) for supporting or maintaining health. The association between supplements use and serious disease conditions is obviously controversial, yet researchers persist in disproving, through clinical trials, an association that ironically is contrary to regulations around the world.

With each inconclusive or non-supporting result, it’s difficult to examine the effect on the credibility of the sector, yet signs remain encouraging through these tough economic times that this category remains if not absolutely strong, than at least has weathered better than many others. Does this mean that pickup on these stories has had no impact? Does this suggest that mainstream consumers continue to seek better health by any and all means? Does this predict that the accumulating body of science will eventually catch up to the market?

Well, in my opinion, the answers to the above are ‘no’, ‘yes’ and ‘I don’t really know’.

You pretty much have to believe that almost anyone scanning the media has heard about the latest result. Viewers probably fall into two primary categories, both of which have already made up their minds on the subject – they either remain convinced of the value of supplements or feel they are totally discredited by this point, scientifically. A third group wavers but recognizes media sensationalism for what it is, and to most, the underlying principle, is that at least there is no harm. Still even for those leaning in favor of supplement use, the continued assault of less than stellar studies eventually has to register at the register.

Several months ago, it was predicted (by yours truly and others) that in tough and uncertain times, managing health through prevention (controlling what you could control), would become a higher priority. We seem to be seeing some evidence of this behavior, and while we may be seeing some trading down in brands, for the most part health does remain a priority, and self-management of health remains a strong driver.

It’s been said that in the current economy, flat is the new up, perhaps it can also be said that for dietary supplements, neutral (as in no clear benefit as related in a study) is also the new up. At least, in the current study, supplements posed no health risk, and unlike other current stories ‘making the rounds’, there has been no immediate fallout for the industry as a whole merely through association with industry outliers having products recalled for being adulturated, or through spurious accusations at supplements being behind positive doping tests for beleaguered professional athletes.

Just like you can scan almost any data set and come out with numerical support for almost any conclusion, so too, you can analyze news and identify headlines and a run of stories to support any fundamental and strongly held belief.

There’s usually no clear tipping point, although as evidence mounts (positive or negative) it does get a bit harder to argue against. From an industry standpoint, we just need to be clear what we’re arguing for.

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