Special edition: Weight Management

Poor science, overblown marketing cause ingredients to fall by wayside

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

A human clinical study supporting the weight loss benefits of green coffee bean extract looked promising enough for the ingredient to be featured on the Dr Oz Show, which greatly boosted its popularity. FTC delved into the study and determined that it was too flawed to be used to back up any of the claims on the ingredient, and ended up demanding a $3.5 million fine in the case.   Image © Getty Images / Diana Taliun
A human clinical study supporting the weight loss benefits of green coffee bean extract looked promising enough for the ingredient to be featured on the Dr Oz Show, which greatly boosted its popularity. FTC delved into the study and determined that it was too flawed to be used to back up any of the claims on the ingredient, and ended up demanding a $3.5 million fine in the case. Image © Getty Images / Diana Taliun

Related tags: Green coffee bean

A number of ingredients have fared well in the weight management game, generating solid sales over the years. Others have burned brightly and then flamed out fast.

Among the ingredients that have suffered this ignominious fate are raspberry ketones, green coffee bean extract and hoodia. All three made promises of significant benefits, but when push came to shove, the scientific backing was found lacking and the actual observed benefits came up short, too.

If consumers fail in commitment, the product fails, too

Stefan Gafner, PhD, chief science officer of the American Botanical Council, said sometimes it’s hard to parse through why one ingredient can win where another will lose. In weight management, so much depends on the commitment of the consumer, which is a variable that is difficult to control.

“Some of the drivers of success are probably difficult to quantify, Gafner​ said. “Success on one hand is how well people are satisfied with the product and so are willing to repurchase it. Weight loss is not an easy category because research has shown that long term success in weight loss is very difficult to achieve. People might see some success by losing a few pounds initially, but that is very difficult to maintain,​ Gafner told NutraIngredients-USA.

High noon for hoodia

Gafner said, though, that some overall lessons can be learned from looking at the history of the three ingredients in question. First on the scene was hoodia (Hoodia gordonii​).  This succulent desert plant, native to the Kalahari Desert in southwest Africa, was said to have been used by the native San people as an appetite suppressant. Chewing bits of the raw plant was said to help tide them over during times of extreme food shortages in their sparse environment.

Hoodia Gordonii  © Getty Images Binty
Hoodia gordonii. Image © Getty Images / Binty

At one time Unilever was in control of the patents on this ingredient and funded research into the products, but gave up by 2008 because the results were not promising enough. But by then the market had gained momentum, and demand far outstripped supply. Large quantities of suspected economically adulterated material flooded the market ​so that, even if the underlying botanical could have had some beneficial effects, many products on the shelves contained little or no real hoodia. By 2011 NutraIngredients-USA had published a webinar called “Life after Hoodia,​ which can still be seen here​. Products claiming to be hoodia can still be found on the fringes of the market, but most of the air has gone out of the balloon.

“It’s a plant that was not that easy to put on the market from a raw material standpoint. There is a small clinical study that shows that when it’s true hoodia and it’s made properly it can have some benefits. But a product like that is bound for failure because the quality is not there,​ Gafner said.

Making research castles in the air

Then there are ingredients that had very little in the way of real data at all. In the case of raspberry ketones, an early mouse study ​showed some promise. Then the product somehow was deemed worthy of being featured on the Dr Oz Show and all hell broke loose.

Interest in the ingredient spiked immediately, as demonstrated by the history of searches on Google using ‘raspberry ketones’ as a search term. The rate of searches went from zero to 100 so to speak almost overnight in January 2012 and peaked a year later before trailing off to its previous level of interest, which is to say next to nothing. So a 2017 rat study that found raspberry ketones had little effect on fat accumulation in rat livers ​flew pretty much under the radar. By then the party was already over.

“The present study supports the need for appropriate study design when validating weight-loss supplements,​ the authors of the latter study wrote.

“There was no human clinical data. Really no efficacy data at all,​ Gafner said.

A study too far

There is also the pitfall of a study that looks good on paper, and then subsequently turns out to be too good to be true. A human clinical study supporting the weight loss benefits of green coffee bean extract looked promising enough for the ingredient to be featured on the Dr Oz Show, which greatly boosted its popularity. The results looked good enough to support the kind of claims specifying amounts of weight lost in given time frames, the kind of claims that make the Federal Trade Commission sit up and take notice. FTC delved into the study and determined that it was too flawed to be used to back up any of the claims on the ingredient, and ended up demanding a $3.5 million fine in the case​.

Complicating that backdrop was the fact that there were all kinds of green coffee bean extracts on the market, with varying levels of the purported active component. So once again, like in the case of hoodia, even if the underlying ingredient might have had some effects, most consumers were getting something else. Interest in the ingredient as measured by Google searches spiked even faster than it did for raspberry ketones and it fell off more quickly too. Judged on that measure, it was the proverbial flash in the pan.

“One company had done one study and then a lot of marketers jumped on that bandwagon. There were all kinds of different extracts and different products on the market with disappointing results for the consumer. That doesn’t translate into long term buying behavior. It’s almost as if the ingredient came to market too quickly,​ Gafner said.

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