NPR podcast on supplements shows industry’s quality message gaining traction

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Dietary supplement industry Dietary supplement

NPR podcast on supplements shows industry’s quality message gaining traction
A recent NPR program on the subject of dietary supplements was a sign both of how far the industry has come in terms of recognition of its legitimacy and how far it has yet to go.

The segment, titled “Are Supplements Nutritional Nonsense?​ aired on January 31 as part of National Public Radio’s 1A podcast hosted by Joshua Johnson. The hour long podcast featured as guests Steve Mister, president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition; Dr. Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest; and Dr. Anne McTiernan, a cancer prevention researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. 

CSPI’s common themes

The general tone of the show was provocative, Mister said. Having Dr. Lurie on the same panel all but guaranteed that much of the time would be spent refuting the notion that the dietary supplement industry is inappropriately regulated. What’s different about a podcast, though, is that the medium operates without the time constraints of regular TV and radio formats, so there is time for meaningful rebuttal.

“CSPI has for years strongly advocated that these products should be regulated in the same way pharmaceuticals are, with little success. What we heard on the radio show was a continuation of that,​ Mister told NutraIngredients-USA.

Among the common CSPI themes were a notion that there is insufficient quality control in the dietary supplement industry, and that marketers of these products are somehow pulling the wool over consumers’ eyes.

“They look on the growth of the industry as a bad thing. From our perspective, the reason the industry is growing is that people are finding benefit from these products and they want to be able to use them,​ Mister said.

Quality message gaining traction

Mister said the program and other reports like it are signs that the industry’s quality message is starting to gain traction within the mainstream media. While the 1A podcast’s tone was provocative, it was not dismissive. The days of having as a default setting the casting of dietary supplement companies as snake oil salesmen may be behind us.

For example, Mister said that critics like CSPI that make broad statements calling the safety of dietary supplements into question are increasingly being put on the defensive. Statements like ‘Who can tell what’s in this stuff?’ is now followed by ‘Where’s the proof of harm?’

“They will make those statements very broadly as if they are proof that the entire industry poses a risk. Then if they are pushed they will fall back to pointing to very idiosyncratic examples. They are still trotting out the ephedra episode and that’s been, what, 14 years ago?​ Mister said.

“Or they will point to some of the work that Dr. Cohen has done on weight loss products sold in ethnic markets as if to say that’s representative of the entire industry,​ he said.

Mister said that while having to respond to such criticisms is vexatious, the landscape has shifted to a discussion to what degree do these examples represent the industry, rather than having to prove from the get go that the industry is legitimate.

“I think things are dramatically different from where they even 10 years ago. I think the industry has matured dramatically over time. Part of it is the arrival of larger companies buying equity brands and the arrival investment groups buying into the sector. They have a much lower tolerance for risk,​ Mister said.

Consumer confidence growing

Another irritant that is fading over time is the notion that the dietary industry as a whole was some kind of back room deal that Sen. Orrin Hatch cooked up to benefit his cronies.

“You still have organizations like CSPI and Consumers Union that will perpetuate that myth, that revisionist history of what took place. As a trade organization that’s one of the things we can do, to set that record straight,​ Mister said.

“We do consumer confidence surveys every year. Consumer confidence in dietary supplements has very slowly but very steadily been creeping up. We think industry initiatives like the Supplement OWL label database will increase transparency and help support that,​ he said.

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