"Like a lot of aging Americans, consumer products and drug companies are hoping vitamins will give them an energy boost," so begins the article that appeared in the Monday April 1, 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal titled With Top Lines Dropping, Firms Reach for Vitamins.
The article continues with, "Procter and Gamble Co... drug maker Pfizer Inc. and Arm & Hammer...owner Church & Dwight Co. all acquired makers of dietary supplements last year. More deals are expected, as companies bet baby boomers and rising health-care costs will drive demand for products that promise health in a bottle."
But here's the kicker from the article, "Supplements appeal because they can tap into the desire for health remedies and claim high prices, without the hassle of tough U.S. regulatory oversight." Got it? These companies know they can make a pretty penny from an unassuming populace without much fear of regulatory oversight. In fact, here's what the WSJ article says about that. "Unlike prescription drugs, vitamins, minerals, botanicals and other dietary supplements don't need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration as safe and effective in order to be sold; that means the products don't have to undergo clinical testing in humans that can take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars." In other words, these companies pursuing huge profits from supplements don't have to rely on science to make their case--just on marketing.
What does that mean to you the consumer? It means that you will be further inundated by mostly worthless in your face products as the WSJ writes, "Some major retailers are allocating more shelf space to health supplements, giving manufacturers the room to move more brands and products. The sector is shaping up to be a battleground between pharmaceutical players and consumer-products companies, many of which are trying to counter slow growth in their mainstay businesses." It's a war, and when retail wars break out, more product moves, just it did during the Cola Wars between Coke and Pepsi, a period which saw soda consumption skyrocket and obesity become an epidemic.
According to the WSJ, " Laurent Faracci, chief strategy and marketing officer of Reckitt Benckiser USA, said the company can get its newly acquired brands like Airborne and MegaRed supplements into more drugstores and mass-retail channels where it already sells products like Lysol disinfectants and Mucinex decongestants. The company also plans to work with key retailers to better present the vitamins and supplement brands in stores."
So it isn't bad enough that nearly 50% of Americans already use multivitamins of little utility (really big studies in men and women involving tens of thousands of people, including physicians and nurses, say so) and as many as 80% use some other form of supplement, often self-prescribed for who knows what use. Now, we have the really big consumer product companies like Proctor and Gamble getting into the mix to push supplement sales to the next level.
Okay, you say. I get it. These products are not what they are held out to be. But why do you rail against them as much as you do? Here are my eight answers to that question.
1. Supplements are basically unregulated products other than for requiring so called "purity," which means virtually any compound, unless a known poison and even if it has never been scientifically vetted for safety, can be put in the bottle as long as it says so on the label.
2. They are not free and people spend their hard-earned money on products that usually offer no measurable benefit or particular pleasure. Remember, none of the world's centenarian communities historically used any pill-form synthetic supplements since the first supplements were not even manufactured and marketed until the 1930s.
3. They give people a false sense of security that all they need to do to stay healthy is to take these pills.
4. They create a licensing effect which means people think they can engage in unhealthy behaviors such as overeating or eating unhealthy foods because the supplements will protect them.
See video about John Cloud's experiment with 3,000 supplements:
Case in point: The step-father of a close friend of mine joined us for dinner one night. He had just completed shopping for his daily supplements and had spent over $1,500 on a variety of pills. At the dinner, he proceeded to order and eat a hamburger on white bun with french fries. I bit my lip watching this fiasco in the making. No amount of supplements, or healthy food for that matter, will protect one from the harms of french fries and fried hamburger meat.
5. Supplements are marketed on the false pretense that you can't get virtually all their known benefits from natural foods, exercise, meditation, and sun. Many of their claims are based on the myth that most fruits and vegetables are grown in nutrient depleted soil. This is untrue as nutritionally depleted soil would prohibit the normal growth of produce. So by definition, if it grows, it has enough nutrients. I confirmed this by review of over one hundred such studies that validated this fact in 100% of cases.
6. While the companies themselves cannot make preposterous claims about the usefulness of their products, others, such as Dr. Oz, can. The spokespeople for these supplement marketers often claim no direct benefit from advocating on behalf of these products, but the advertising of these companies that pay for their shows, websites, and magazines would suggest indirect benefit at a minimum.
7. Supplements represent at their best nutritional isolationism. What this means is that one can isolate out certain essential nutrients and that is all one needs to be healthy. For example, such logic would support the argument that there is no difference between vitamin C in an orange and synthetic vitamin C. Chemically, they look the same but the synthetic one deflects light in two directions, while the natural C reflects to the left. More importantly, the natural vitamin C is surrounded by enzymes, co-enzymes, activators, precursors, antioxidants, and other synergistic nutrients all found naturally in the fruit. The synthetic vitamin C is either offered alone or in combination with other synthetic, isolated vitamins. Which would you prefer? Which do you think is better for your body? It is foolish to focus on isolated nutrients in the absence of a particular deficiency when nature has always packed a powerful punch by combining all kinds of good things together from time immemorial. No nutritional researchers have even begun to scratch the surface of what synergism among all 700 nutrients in a strawberry actually means or the 300 in an apple. Given the choice between nature and factory, between what nature offers us and supplement marketers peddle, I say choose the fruit and vegetable.
8. For those new to my blog, the bottom line is Caveat Lector, 'Let the reader beware." There is so much misinformation available through blogs (including possibly mine), websites, TV shows, magazines, newsletters, etc. that you can't just read something as gospel and assume it is true. Verification with a resource that doesn't stand to gain from your decision is your safest bet. Contrary to some misinformed pundits, doctors don't benefit from prescribing medications and are therefore not in the pockets of Big Pharma as some claim. If supplements worked, many physicians would willingly prescribe them for their patients. Besides, contrary to the conspiracy theorists, many of the supplement companies are owned by Big Pharma, like Pfizer which owns Centrum, and that little fact alone should help one discard such theories.
9. Finally, the biggest danger that supplements pose is the false security that people develop about self-diagnosing and self-medicating as some supplements actually do have medicinal-like effects. So, please don't self-diagnose and even more importantly, please don't self-prescribe simply because some very clever and capable marketers can pull on your heart strings and create fables of perpetual good health and disease prevention based on myths of taking some pill or another that hasn't ever been shown in a valid human study to have value or effectiveness, at least not for the reason you are taking it.
It's about to get intense out there in retail-land. Big, huge, deep pockets trying to make money off of you buying supplements, throwing every marketing ploy and trick at you from their highly refined book of strategies. They made a mess out of our eating habits leading us down the path to obesity and increased heart disease. (If you don't believe me, read the book by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss called Salt, Sugar and Fat.)
So put on your blinders and put in your earplugs lest you fall victim to their cunning images and deceptive siren songs. The Supplement War is on. G-d help us all.