Editorial: Confusion Reigns

By Len Monheit
[email protected]

How do you know a product is any good?

You're a consumer bombarded by media every waking moment and in the space of minutes you've heard from one source, that 'Vitamin E isn't helpful and may be harmful' (headline on a UK news source today) and that "Vitamin E forms seem to reduce prostate cancer risk' (another headline in the last 24 hours). Today you might also have read that "Consumers struggle with some herbal cold remedies" or "Many remedies unproven" even as you try to digest the fact that a specific St. John's wort extract compared very favorably against a prescription drug used for the treatment of mild to severe depression.

Let's take this argument and confusion one step further.

The St. John's wort study reported two weeks ago used a specific extract from Germany. What are the implications for other St. John's wort products? Does this ingredient appear in other preparations? What are the properties of this material that might make it different from others?

With all the focus on flax as a nutritional ingredient, are all flax products equivalent? What about omega-3 sources in general? And how do you differentiate and delineate without confusing? If it's true that a consumer targeted message must be really, really simple, how do you get mind-share around the fact that there are so many things they should know, and more importantly, things they must ask in order to make informed decisions?

Let's take this question to still another level.

Company 'x' has rather unscrupulous sourcing practices where the lowest priced vendor typically gets the business. Even under GMP's, the company figures it can camouflage the quality of its sources by being careful about how it labels its products. And, even under GMP's, the chance of any effective enforcement activity is rather slim. The company's marketing is typically by low cost channels, and is price-based and targets vulnerable population groups. On the other hand, company 'y' has a detailed vendor qualification program, has a history of terminating vendors for sub-standard quality, and it produces no product containing less than a scientifically established efficacious amount of any constituent.

To the consumer, all too often these products and companies are considered equivalent, or would be except perhaps for the price differential, which actually favors company ‘x’..

These are issues of which many of us are intuitively aware. How often have you been involved in a conversation with someone from outside the industry, when your conversation partner asks, "is_________ any good?" (fill ______ with any product or company you care to). And on top of this, how often have you been told, "This stuff doesn't really work, does it?" and have to admit that not all products in a category are effective.

This morning's Associated Press article "Shoppers try natural, unproven cold remedies, sometimes without realizing it" has many titles, including "Shoppers drawn to unproven natural cold medicines", "Shoppers unwittingly taking unproven cold pills", "Herbal products and homeopathy not so easy to discern, regulated differently", "Alternative drugs draw some concern", "Cold-remedy confusion may prompt new rules", and a final headline that probably cannot be disputed, even while the information contained within the article might be: "Shoppers Confused by Herbal Cold Remedies" (The article itself by the way is at: http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2005-03-03-natural-meds_x.htm )

I guess a continuing question that haunts me is: “who has the responsibility of educating the consumer?” True, we're seeing efforts from ingredient suppliers, through various programs and campaigns including the construction and marketing of science-based informational websites and resources. There are also industry efforts such as http://www.vitaminefacts.org/. Perhaps consumers really do want to get additional information but get so confused that they give up and search for that simple handle or message. I personally think that's true at some level.

It will be interesting to see what evolves as food companies continue to integrate nutritional ingredients into their product mix. Given regulatory constraints and marketplace confusion, all signs point to major packaged goods companies using the message 'contains' or 'a source of' even if they are legally permitted to say more. This type of behavior puts even more responsibility on the ingredient supplier to build the category and educate and create an ingredient identity. Yet building this category, brand or combination has, in many cases, an as yet unrealized economic incentive.

In this respect, as in so many others, the current value chain economics are flawed. There is very little quantifiable incentive for education, just as there is little incentive for quality, and inadequate incentive for research.

Despite this reality, companies (both ingredient suppliers and finished product manufacturers) are investing in all three. Why? Perhaps they see the day, not too far distant, where the investment either generates a specific return to them (and their supply chain partners), or that their less scrupulous competitors will be frozen out by a more aware marketplace.

I can see both happening.

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