Editorial: There's research out there--- somewhere.

By Len Monheit

Last week I spoke about presentations at Nutracon dealing with protection of intellectual property and company and product research. I’ve received interesting feedback and been asked to do my own crystal ball gazing, which I’m a bit reluctant to do. Although I do see more changes coming to this industry, and players presently involved who will struggle to survive, what I’m going to do here is explain a bit of the dilemma facing those in the industry trying to do more research to support product efficacy.

There is a growing group within the industry that appreciates the value of research both on ingredients and finished products, and it will be interesting to see whether products can be brought to market and sold for the premium price the investment and efficacy would likely demand. We hear that consumers make decisions largely on price and associate an entire product group with research on specific, often proprietary ingredients, whether it’s glucosamine, MSM, lutein or anything else. Branding efforts and marketing programs are sometimes effective in associating a specific product with its research, but in many cases it’s the entire product group that gets the attention. Even the FDA regulated claims system supports this by allowing only general claims. So, we have a conundrum.

At Nutracon, I watched the following scenario unfold: An exhibitor with a new formulation of a very common ingredient was standing at his booth during one of the show breaks. A manufacturer came up to him and asked him about his product. He went into his pitch about quality, price and flavor. The manufacturer asked him about research to support the fact that the product works. He said, the research is “out there”, and when asked about his company’s own research a big blank look came over his face.

Many of us have seen this blank look, or received a glib response of “sure it works” or seen the same journal references cited for all manufactured products containing a particular ingredient, whether from company x, y or z. Borrowed or pirated science is a serious concern to leaders in the industry investing in research and proprietary products.

From the purchasing standpoint, all other things being equal, and needing to manage final product cost, we’ll go with the lowest cost supplier. Often, though, all things are not quite equal.

Many in this industry are better able to outline the potential differences in ingredient or final product efficacy and performance due to processing, ingredient combinations, storage, formulation and other factors. Here, I’ll just say that all of these factors can impact the product. Yet the industry frequently considers ingredients to be commodities, and condones the borrowing of science. Not only science, but safety data in the form of GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) affirmation is borrowed. “Since company “X” has self-affirmed through study and research that their ingredient is GRAS, then the ingredient from company “Y” must be.” This is not so.

One of the common arguments we hear is that smaller companies can’t afford to pay the cost of research required to support their products. Also, if consumers balk at paying the cost of well researched products, then where’s the incentive to do the studies in the first place?

We operate in a fragmented industry where products can touch many hands before ending up on store shelves. We have a situation where scientific journals often don’t cite enough specifics about the products they research, and even when they do, details such as brand, formulation etc are not picked up in the coverage.

So what do we need to do?

  • Decide what the value of the research is?
  • Develop higher industry standards for research reporting?
  • Pay more attention to the products used in the research?
  • Demand more information from suppliers about their specific research programs?
  • Notice and hold accountable those companies that have made a practice out of borrowing research?

Alternatively, we could turn our products into commodities or stop the research.

Your choice.

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