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Letter From NBJ: The Slippery Tightrope

The supplement industry is far from monolithic. On matters of science it can seem downright schizophrenic.

For many consumers, and a good number of industry pioneers, supplements stand as an alternative to pharma, a crusade for natural vs. synthetic, alternative medicine in tie dye vs those scientist guys in the white lab coats who work harder for profit than health.

At the same time, defending against “snake oil” charges means bringing in science. Science will prove that supplements provide benefit. Science will build trust. Science will show customers that the industry is competent and reliable.

Can you tie dye a white lab coat?

Will you turn off the natural-is-good co-op crowd when you step out from the macramé curtain? Can you deliver on benefits if you don’t deliver on science? It’s not a slippery slope. It’s a slippery tightrope walk with a tangled net on both sides.

But it’s a tightrope that must be walked.

Very carefully.

Last week came news that Bayer was out to buy Monsanto. Shoppers are more likely to equate Bayer with OTC drugs than supplements, but the mega-corporation is a giant in the nutrition industry. Indeed, they soundly beat the FTC in court last year and won a major victory for supplement makers.

They have the kind of science that can build mountains of trust and the marketing forces to keep that science from looking too pharma.

But Monsanto? The dark engine of GMO bent on making industrial agriculture even more industrial? That’s the kind of science that consumers looking for natural alternatives abhor. It’s even the kind of science that will draw a cringe from consumers who might be Googling clinical trials for science-backed solutions.

In a world of often incongruous consolidation, this could be the oddest of couplings.

It’s difficult to see such a deal adding any good momentum to the argument for science in supplements. If anything, it makes the tightrope slipperier, and steeper.

That tightrope walk is central to one of the industry’s greatest challenges. Supplements present themselves as a player in health care, but where they stand in relation to pharma needs to be more clearly defined. Do supplements make consumers generally healthier or do they wink and nod their way past DSHEA restrictions and at the very least help people avoid disease. Is it complimentary medicine or alternative medicine? Settling on a story and telling it well is vital.

Telling it while avoiding the glare of the FDA gets trickier as more science is woven into the narrative. The way forward is clear. It’s just complicated.

So pull on that tie-dye lab coat. And step onto the tight rope.

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