Editorial: Supplements and Functional Foods

By Len Monheit

Perspectives on Supplements and Functional Foods – One week in review

Last week’s column focused on observed disconnects between research, policy and industry, and the last several days have not only reinforced that theme, they’ve provided me a perspective from totally outside our industry as well.

Last week, I was in Quebec City, and among other things obtained a unique perspective of the burgeoning functional foods opportunity, delivered as a keynote address by Globe and Mail columnist, André Picard speaking about food as ‘food’ rather than as a sum of discrete components and parts, in summation, stating his personal opposition to the over-functionalization of foods and beverages. One cannot be sure how widely this view is shared, but it brings up several important issues. First of all, are we (and the consumers we reach out to) getting too caught up in components, breaking up the food as enjoyment, food as overall sustenance equation, such that the ultimate message of functional foods and beverages for health enhancement can never be effectively delivered mainstream. Secondly, (and perhaps most importantly), we tend to target the adopted or converted in our day to day and week by week messaging efforts. I’ve seen this in numerous business environments, where companies focus on those within the current sphere of influence rather than sphere of desired influence, yet ultimate projections for product success are based on reaching the mainstream. Mainstream is the environment where broad-based outreach and education can frequently have the most impact and deliver a long-term opportunity, but all too often, companies try to expand by persuading existing clients to purchase more, rather than by totally understanding the novel marketplace that represents the ultimate vision – and buyer group.

I’ve seen recent examples of this in the service sector (a consulting company) focusing on new services to existing clients rather than taking its core expertise to those currently sniffing around the sector, and a media company focusing exclusively on its current subscriber base rather than acknowledging that in order to deliver more value to advertisers (and readers) , it needed to revisit its subscriber base. Whenever we focus operationally and get too close to the subject and market at hand, we risk losing a sense of overall direction – a point brought home by Mr. Picard’s statements about food as enjoyment last week.

Next, the Quebec conference also allowed me to ponder the disconnects between emerging science and health policy – from several angles. The interconnection leads to several observations. How much science (and of the right type) will lead to policy change? (research, business or regulatory). What is the ideal mechanism for this, and most importantly, the right timeframe. For instance should the latest pivotal gold standard study, outweigh decades of science? Should there be a factor, an equation? Who should make the decision? In Canada, should it be the Canadian Institutes of health Research, in collaboration with the US Institute of Medicine as I now understand happens from time to time? Should there be a specified, standard-driven review period? How long should these august bodies debate the latest studies on Vitamin D befor deciding on new intake values and upper thresholds? What type of interim communication should they issue? (At least presumably that the issue is under review rather than last year’s stop the parade press release from Health Canada that restated the 1997 IOM report as its primary reference point.)

On a related issue, when does the divergence of science allow for separate consideration of related products and ingredients. Classic examples include omega-3’s and in a more quiet environment, Vitamin K. Recent developments suggest that Vitamin K species (K1, K2 and K3) behave differently and act at different levels. At what point does health and regulatory policy catch up with this type of development? At what point should it? How much science is adequate for the ‘next’ statement or determination?

My final observation/revelation for the week came as I attended a summit on Online Marketing over the past several days. As things have evolved for us here at NPIcenter, most of my days currently involve me being surrounded by industry, supplements, natural health products, functional floods and beverages. More importantly, the issues I’m focused on are those at the core of our sector, product quality, science, regulations, products and business and they are the subjects not only of dialogue, but also consideration – day in and day out.

The past few days have been drastically different. I was forced to switch roles and consider perspectives and developments in online communication as a whole, recognizing that many of the practices and principles will not find their way into our sector for some time yet. And the considerations of other Summit attendees allowed me to switch hats in two separate manners as I focused on how to build audience, how to get high search rankings, the merits of pay per click advertising, site usability and design, analytics, key performance indicators, and latest developments and theories in e-newsletters, blogs and social media.

The first role shift I experienced was to become again a marketing manager, and delve once more into site functionality and audience need matching. It let me realize that it’s been a long time since we at NPIcenter took that role and much has evolved. So keep watching to see us implement some of the new learning, I hope, for audience benefit.

Secondly, I found myself adopting the role of marketing agent for our industry and for those within it. In the first case, as a sector, we are pretty inadequate in our outreach activities, one of the reasons why web searches and community-building efforts all seem to focus on the sensational rather than the substantive. As marketing agent for companies within the industry itself, I see a whole range of issues and opportunities that can leverage our industry and products to an enhanced general and specific consumer mindshare. Strategies such as SEO have been used, but the incorporation of organic search and social media paradigms represent an opportunity for leading, science-backed organizations to reach an expanded audience. It was nice to put back on my marketing hat, and see not only immediate opportunities for ourselves, but for our audience as well.

As you can see, it was a thought-provoking week. Perhaps some of you have answers or additional thoughts?

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