This January will mark my 10th year in the industry after a long career in the daily newspaper business. My recounting of the things I’ve seen in my time in the industry might not equal the drama of Rutger Hauer’s dying soliloquy in the 1982 classic sci fi film Blade Runner. But I’ve seen a few.
Before I got into this industry I was the typical oblivious consumer. What little I knew about dietary supplements was gleaned mostly from One A Day vitamin commercials. I thought of dietary supplements the same as I did about the ‘Action Wedge’ that used to be hawked in the old PF Flyer sneaker commercials as something that would make you run faster, jump higher. In other words, something that would be nice if it worked as advertised, but that probably wouldn’t.
Representations of the best human nutritional research has to offer
On the plus side, I have had the great privilege of talking to experts who have advanced the state of human knowledge. I don’t know if any of the people I’ve talked to in this business will be up for a Nobel Prize, but I certainly think some of them are of that quality.
Sometimes, I’ll admit, I feel a bit of the dilettante in these situations. Someone has just spent years of their life elucidating a new point of nutritional knowledge. Or they’ve got years invested in developing and refining a new ingredient. Or they’ve spent decades on their hands and knees figuring out how some understory plant does what it does. Then I swoop in and cherry pick the best they have to offer during a 45-minute conversation.
I’ve participated in conferences that bring in experts from around the world who have a shared thirst for knowledge on a particular subject, whether it’s botanicals, probiotics or what have you. I always feel both humbled and hopeful in these surroundings. Humbled in how far I am from being the smartest person in the room. And hopeful in that the collegial atmosphere at these meetings shows that the spirit of international cooperation (as opposed to confrontation) is not dead, however assiduously some prominent figures on global stage seem to be working to make it so.
Unscrupulous, or frankly ignorant actors
On the flip side, I’ve had conversations with people running companies in this business that made what little hair I have remaining on the back of my neck stand up. I’ve talked a couple of sports nutrition formulators who shall remain nameless (as is everyone here except for Mr Hauer) because of their highly litigious nature. But I came away feeling that the good of the consumer was the last thing on these people’s minds and it made me feel bad to think that some kid in a locker room is gobbling down pills made by such people. These are folks for whom jail terms are inconveniences and warning letters and injunctions are just pieces of paper.
I’ve talked to others new to this industry who seemed to know so little about what they were doing that I have gently suggested they spend a few of the hundreds of thousands of dollars they were prepared to lay out on the advice of some competent counsel.
Vast majority of responsible players
But these experiences represent the small minority of conversations I’ve had. In the main, the people in the dietary supplement industry are committed to putting out quality products that support consumers’ health. And they’ve been spectacularly successful in bringing a plethora of new products to market. At the time DSHEA was passed in 1994 there were a few thousand dietary supplement products on the market. Today, that market includes more than 80,000 products and is worth as much as $43 billion.
And the science behind the ingredients is ramping up in similarly spectacular fashion. Choose just about any dietary supplement ingredient of note and the number of studies associated with them has exploded in the past 25 years. The PubMed database listed 19 studies with the search term ‘turmeric’ in 1994. For 2019 that figure is 527. Type in ‘curcumin’ and the numbers are 33 and 1,761, respectively. Same for probiotics. There are 13 such studies listed on PubMed for 1994, and 3,345 in 2019. Vitamin D’s numbers: 1,102 studies in 1994 and a high of 5,143 in 2017. The list goes on.
Big changes in the offing
The coming year will see some milestone changes. A new regulatory paradigm, often dubbed ‘DSHEA 2.0’ is likely in the offing. There might finally be some clarity on the draft guidance on New Dietary Ingredients.
And the CBD logjam will burst one way or the other. Either FDA will say that it’s safety concerns have not been allayed and the industry needs to go back to square one, a middle ground will be found with the agency issuing the called for interim rule allowing CBD as a dietary ingredient, or lawmakers will solve the issue via statute.
It’s unclear how these issues will play out. What is clear, though, is that the industry will have an opportunity to make itself over as a better version of itself. It’s a chance that has really not presented itself since the industry’s inception in 1994.
I’ve felt privileged to be along for the ride. And we here at NutraIngredients-USA are pulling for the most responsible players in the industry to win out in these critical decisions to be taken over the coming year. Regardless of which political party prevails in the national election, reining in health care costs is sure to be high on the national agenda come 2021. A responsible dietary supplement industry with new regulatory clarifications in place could take a place at that table as one of the solutions to the looming healthcare crisis.