Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Who Knew???

In 1987, during my first year at Harvard Business School, my class was asked to consider a case study of whether or not there was a market for gourmet coffee shops in the United States. The significance of the question rested on the fact that due to Americans' increasing focus on health, coffee consumption had consistently dropped for the previous twenty years. Coffee had primarily been replaced by fruit drinks. We debated the case at length and overwhelmingly, students took the position that coffee was unhealthy, that its consumption would continue to drop, and therefore there was no market for such a product. Well the product turned out to be Starbucks and the rest is history.

This anecdote is relevant for several reasons.  It points out that what most people think doesn't necessarily pan out to be true. Second, the alternative that Americans pursued in place of coffee turns out to be less healthy than coffee. A well constructed, largest study of its type, conducted by Neal Freedman, PhD of the National Institute of Cancer and the National Institute of Health, revealed that  men who drank 2 to 3 cups of coffee daily had a 10% decrease in their risk for death during the 13 years of the study compared with men who drank no coffee. Women who drank 2 to 3 cups of coffee daily had a 13% decrease in their risk for death.

On the other hand, fruits juices proved to be generally unhealthy because many of their nutrients and fiber are removed during the juicing process.  Instead of a beverage full of vitamins, minerals and other healthy nutrients, you mostly get one with highly concentrated fructose, an unhealthy sugar in such large quantities. So it turns out that the health choices of Americans were simply wrong at that time.

This stroll down memory lane offers more than a nostalgic moment. It is a cautionary tale about the dangers of following the masses when what may seem to make sense simply does not. Today, I believe the situation is repeating itself with dietary supplements (and continuing with fruit juices). The idea that supplements are an insurance policy is just wrong. The science simply doesn't support this conclusion. Supplements have a role to play when used judiciously. However, it is estimated that nearly 80% of the population takes one form of supplement or another, with over 40% consuming multi-vitamins.  It is time for the facts to be widely disseminated regarding the dangers of random supplementation. In 1990, the FDA was given the power to do so. By 1994, Congress bowing to pressure from the supplement industry, took it away. We need to give it back to the FDA before real harm is done.

1 comment:

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