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As America fattens, faulty claims still dog weight-management sector

By Hank Schultz , 21-Sep-2012

A study released this week shows that the obesity crisis in the United States shows no sign of abating; in fact it’s getting worse.  But sales of dietary supplements in the weight management category haven’t kept pace with the nation’s swelling waistlines.  What’s going on?

The opportunity seems to be irrefutable.  The study, titled to F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future 2012, and released this week by the Trust for America's Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), projects that by 2030, every state in the nation will have an obesity rate of at least 44%, 39 states could have rates above 50% and 13 states could have adult obesity rates above 60% with Mississippi topping the list with a projected rate of 66%.  The report also seeks to quantify what that will mean in terms of added health care costs.

"This study shows us two futures for America's health," said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, RWJF president and CEO. "At every level of government, we must pursue policies that preserve health, prevent disease and reduce health care costs. Nothing less is acceptable."

So why have sales of weight-management ingredients lagged in the doldrums? Mitch Skop, senior director of new product development for New Jersey-based Pharmachem Laboratories, which manufacturers a three-pronged approach to weight management called Phase 1-2-3, said the sector has been harmed by sloppy science and irresponsible marketing.

“The vast majority of marketers in our business use scant scientific evidence to make the cheapest product and then they put claims on it that nothing can deliver on and it erodes the confidence in the consumer because the stuff doesn’t work. As opposed to the responsible, conservative, truthful way, which would be to use ingredients that have sufficient data and safety so that when a promise is made in a consumer product, that promise can be delivered,” Skop told NutraIngredients-USA.

“With all of the low grade product making high grade claims it’s really no wonder.  We keep shooting ourselves in our foot over and over.” he said.

Bob Green, president of Nutratech, which manufactures a bitter-orange thermogenic ingredient called Advantra-Z, agreed, saying: “Losing weight is hard, and consumers want a quick fix.  So, the weight management industry has too often been plagued by products that don’t work or that overly hype their benefits.” 

Added disease burden

The report projects that if states' obesity rates continue on their current trajectories, the number of new cases of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke, hypertension and arthritis could increase 10 times between 2010 and 2020—and double again by 2030.  

It also projects that obesity could contribute to more than 6 million cases of type 2 diabetes, 5 million cases of coronary heart disease and stroke, and more than 400,000 cases of cancer in the next two decades. 

A lot of this hurt could be offset by just a little weight loss, the report said. People don’t have to shoot for unattainable goals. A reduction of just 5 percent in the average body mass of citizens could help prevent much of the added disease and attendant health care burdens, the report said.  Doing nothing means that by 2030, treating preventable obesity-related illnesses could cost an additional $48 billion to $66 billion.  Obesity-related medical costs can be hard to quantify, but the current best estimates for treating these conditions range from $147 billion to $210 billion per year.

The report lays out a number of suggestions for action, none of which mention weight-management dietary supplements directly.  The closest it comes is a recommendation that reads: “Encourage full use of preventive health care services.”

Responsible claims

How can change industry the image of supplements among health care professionals and others who advise consumers about their weight-management choices?  Skop suggest starting by reining in the rhetoric, and focusing on conservative, supportable claims. And, he said, Pharmachem is willing to back up that attitude with action in regards to the companies that use their ingredients.

“We don’t permit them (overhyped claims).  Our license agreements don’t permit them. We have stopped selling to companies that have violated their license agreements.  We do take it seriously,” he said.

Green of Nutratech echoed those sentiments, saying: “Even a tried and true thermogenic ingredient like Nutratech’s Advantra Z, which has a 15-year safety and efficacy track record – is not a weight management cure-all.  You cannot sit on the sofa, eat potato chips, and lose weight by taking a supplement.” 

It’s a challenge that has staying power.  In a Euromonitor study quoted in NutraIngredients-USA in 2011, the authors had this to say about weight management ingredients: “Two challenges functional ingredients will have to overcome to gain mainstream acceptance are proving their safety and recovering from the wild claims used for years by marketers promising miracle results.  This second challenge may prove particularly difficult.”

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