More claims on herbal products now reflect responsible references to science

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Getty Images / Elenathewise
Getty Images / Elenathewise
As the dietary supplement industry evolves, most claims are now more aligned with the underlying science. But there is still a penumbra of outliers, with new offenders popping up by the day.

The dietary supplement industry is entering the bloom of its early adulthood, if we take the signing of DHSEA almost 25 years ago as a birth date. And just like people, it’s an age where one expects most of the trappings of youth, and the youthful mistakes that go with it, will start to fall away. 

I argued a few months ago in this newly instituted commentary feature here at NutraIngredients-USA that botanical supplements were in fact ‘better’ than they were 25 years ago​.  More attention is being paid to the supply chain now.  While some small level of adulteration has always been and always will be with us, a much brighter spotlight is being shined on this activity.  More lab guidance documents and monographs are available for botanicals, laying out a quality roadmap for the production and verification of these materials of a sort that if it existed 25 years ago was in only the most rudimentary form.

I think it’s clear the products themselves have improved from a quality standpoint.  But what about the messaging around them?

Early claims were crude

A few years ago with a different employer I was involved in an effort to mine supplement advertisements from old magazines to potentially help companies prove the ODI status of their ingredients. I was struck with how crude the messaging in those old adverts was. Either the companies were making outright disease claims, or they were making amorphous claims along the lines of “Harness the power of nature for abundant health!”

As far as disease claims are concerned, they, like adulteration, seem as if they will always be with us.  Almost every month or two since FDA has been posting warning letters on its site, there will be something about a company having been warned about making overt or implied disease claims.  Sometimes these claims will have been posted in the form of testimonials.

In recent years, a common observation from stakeholders in the industry about the companies that receive these warning letters is that no one has ever heard of them. It’s not a big positive that bit players like these can give the whole industry a black eye.  And no one likes that a significant number of these warning letters based on faulty claims continue to be made public every year.

But I think it’s important to note that most of these companies do seem to represent true outliers.  Hard data on the dietary supplement market is hard to come by;  no one, for example, can say with certainty exactly how many products are on the market.  But I think a strong case could be made that the kinds of companies still making these claims represent a tiny fraction of the market.  In other words, 99 out of 100 consumers will be purchasing from companies making responsible claims.

More claims now backed by science

And the kind of claims have evolved, too.  In the intervening 25 years many suppliers and manufacturers have developed specialized extracts and delivery technologies that support targeted benefits for products. Now, instead of relying on allusions to ‘nature’s wisdom,’ companies can make claims linked to specific claims of benefit. For example, here’s a statement from one well know supplement manufacturer about its class of carotenoid products, with asterisks linking to the DSHEA disclaimers:

“Almost all carotenoids are free radical scavengers, helping to protect tissues from the damaging effects of oxidation.* In addition, the molecular structure of a carotenoid helps it to absorb light, especially blue light, which can be harmful to sensitive ocular structures.*”

Here’s another claim, from another well known manufacturer:

“Delivers whole food and concentrated herbal antioxidant compounds known to support an already healthy inflammation response.*”

And a third, from yet another high profile mainstream company:

“Ashwagandha helps to promote normal sleep patterns and supports healthy endocrine and immune systems.* Magnolia bark calms occasional nervousness and supports sleep.* Other botanicals such as Lemon Balm show promise in research studies in promoting a sense of calm in the body.*”

These kind of claims represent the responsible core of the industry. They are supported by dozens to hundreds or in some cases thousands of studies on these nutrients. While most of these are not the large scale, randomized trials that industry critics are always harping about, neither are they the kind of aspirational “it’s natural, and therefore good for you”​ type of statements that were common two decades ago and were backed with little more than a hazy halo of good feeling and good will.

Recourse on claims language

And for those companies still making truly unsubstantiated claims, there is now recourse for remedying this situation.  There are the aforementioned warning letters pertaining to disease claims.  In the first years after DSHEA was signed, FDA paid little attention to the sector, and there was little policing of claims language.  And the Federal Trade Commission has gotten into the act, too, by delving into the science backing for certain companies’ claims as a matter of truthfulness in advertising (though it must be admitted that this activity has been viewed as very much of a two-edged sword by the industry). Finally, outlandish claims can be self policed via review by the National Advertising Division, a service of the Better Business Bureau that is funded in part by the Council for Responsible Nutrition.

Taken all together, I think it’s clear that herbal supplements these days are not only better made, but they are marketed more carefully too.  Claims much more often reflect and are backed by solid science, with the ultimate result of a more trustworthy industry that is in a better position to help more consumers.

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