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Cleansing Vocabularies of Ephedra in the Natural Products Industry

If you want to sell products, you’ve got to put yourself in the mindset of the potential consumer. It’s something we all learned in marketing 101.
Our professors taught us to tout the features and benefits of our products. After all, they said, customers want to know if the orange juice includes added calcium or whether the pasta manufacturer has used only the finest Durham wheat. Consumers want it spelled out right on the label that the dairy manufacturer has added vitamin D, or that the fresh spinach leaves have been triple-washed.

Similarly, we were taught to showcase our advantages when we have enhanced a product’s appeal to certain groups of consumers. For instance, buyers with high blood pressure want to know if the soup is lower in sodium; people with dairy allergies look for labels that say “lactose-free;” and diabetics are on the hunt for sugar-free products. We gladly tell the world that our prunes and olives are pitted and the margarine contains no polyunsaturated fats because consumers use this information to aid in their buying decisions.

But there is one marketing nuance that requires real-life experience to best understand. It’s called the negative association factor. If you follow the natural products industry, you have probably noticed that one of our greatest negative association challenges these days is the word “ephedra.” Our lesson for today? We must stop using the terms “Ephedra-Free” and “Ephedra Alternative.”

To many of us who work in the industry, phrases encompassing “free” and “alternative” can be construed as good selling points. But remember, we need to think like consumers. And to them, regardless of whether it is perception or reality, “ephedra” has very serious negative connotations. No matter what we tack on behind it, it is not possible to completely turn the now negative word “ephedra” into a positive.

It is unlikely we will ever reach the point where people stop mentioning ephedra. But as an industry, we can do our part to hasten its departure from our vocabularies. The longer “ephedra” is associated with natural products, the more difficult it becomes to combat credibility issues around natural products in general.

How do I know? My company is the exclusive worldwide distributor of Advantra Z, the only patented bitter orange ingredient used in sports nutrition and weight-loss formulas.

As a thermogenic agent, bitter orange is continually compared to ephedra, and as suppliers, we don’t like or invite that comparison. Our patented ingredient does not impact the body in the ways ephedra did.

When my company talks to the consumer press, we point to multiple years’ worth of research studies that show bitter orange is safe and effective – we keep them on our company’s web site for easy access. And we pointedly do not talk about ephedra because it has nothing to do with bitter orange. So it’s always a bit of a let down when we read articles – in publications as prestigious as the New York Times, even -- that continue perpetuating the myth that bitter orange’s only selling point is that is an alternative to ephedra. If that’s the case, then Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, celery sticks and placebos should also be labeled as “ephedra alternatives.”

It is true that bitter orange is “chemically similar” to ephedra, and that’s why it frequently is laden with the same negative press coverage ephedra once received. After all, the consumer press enjoys looking for and writing about controversy. The problem is chemical similarities don’t mean much. Water and hydrogen peroxide are chemically similar, but I can guess which one you’d be willing to drink and which you would not.
Our industry initially invited and welcomed the comparisons to ephedra when the ingredient was still the flavor of the month but starting to come under serious scrutiny. Consumers wanted a good efficacious alternative to ephedra and manufacturers wanted to cash in on its demise.
But as the negatives around ephedra continued to escalate, it should have become apparent that it was time to move away from any sort of ephedra association. And that’s where we are today. Let’s focus on the proven scientific benefits of ingredients and products on their own merit, and shrug off comparisons. If your company still uses “Ephedra-Free” or “Ephedra Alternative” in your product name and marketing materials, I would ask you to rethink those decisions.

Take a page from the agricultural industry playbook. Have you ever seen any chemicals labeled, “DDT free?” Of course not. If you’re like most consumers, you think “dangerous, unsafe, banned,” when you hear “DDT.” From a perception (not necessarily scientific) standpoint, ephedra has become our industry’s DDT.

The ban on ephedra did not lead to a ban on the word from our industry, but it should have. Now it’s time to be proactive. If we stop inviting guilt by association, perhaps the rest of the world, including the general media, will follow.

Bob Green is president of Nutratech, Inc., in Wayne, N.J., exclusive worldwide distributor of the patented bitter orange ingredient, Advantra Z (

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