Guest article

Is Science For Sale? CRN expert reacts to recent attack on industry

By Andrea Wong, Ph.D., senior vice president, scientific & regulatory affairs, Council for Responsible Nutrition

- Last updated on GMT

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Related tags: Regulation, media critics

For those of us who have been in the health and wellness industry for a while, we know that the New Year predictably leads to lots of media coverage around health and wellness resolutions—new fitness regimes, eating patterns, and supplement use. And, just as predictably, this time of year brings out a few “gotcha” media pieces with screaming headlines like: “your supplements aren’t doing anything – and worse, they are harming you!”

So I wasn’t surprised when freelance journalist Tamar Haspel, writing for the Washington Post,​ wanted to interview me about dietary supplements this month.

As a scientist who frequently interfaces with the media, I was prepared to talk about the facts: how a multivitamin can fill nutrient gaps in the American diet; how omega-3s can support heart health; how calcium and vitamin D can support bone health; and how choline, iodine and folic acid are critical for fetal development, among many others. I was also prepared to discuss emerging science supporting supplementation for sports nutrition, brain health, energy, sleep, mental health, and popular ingredients– such as CBD, turmeric, probiotics, protein, and vitamin K2. 

Assault on science

To communicate both sides of the story, I was ready to talk honestly about some genuinely unsavory parts of our industry, and what my organization is doing about it. Both on the supply side – by supporting a mandatory product listing and greater funding for FDA enforcement to root out bad actors and pushing for meaningful legislation. And on the demand side – by educating consumers about dangerous products and ingredients, with our #SARMSCanHarm campaign, and encouraging product label literacy through our #LabelWise initiative.

What I was not prepared for was an attack on science. If you’ve seen Haspel’s piece, “Most Dietary Supplements Don’t Do Anything. Why do We Spend $35 Billion a Year on Them?” ​which ran in the January 29, 2020 Washington Post Food section, you know that’s exactly what it is.

She begins by citing experts at the National Institutes of Health and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and sharing their list of supplements with well-established benefits, including folic acid, vitamin B12, antioxidants, ginger, peppermint, melatonin, fish oil, and a daily multivitamin.

The mythical “independent scientist”

Then, she launches into an assault on industry science, sounding a false alarm around the void of independent scientists who believe that dietary supplement health claims are meaningful. Naturally, this is where I, the supplement industry scientist, am quoted in the article. 

Only scientists who have taken the time to either perform research or do a serious literature review on a particular ingredient are willing to opine on a particular ingredient. Neither research nor reviewing research is free – in fact, both can be quite costly and time intensive to undertake. My explanation and experience as a career scientist did not fit the narrative she was set on telling.

Who exactly does Haspel think is the mythical “independent scientist” who has the time, the resources, the expertise, and the inclination to be able to provide a qualified scientific opinion on dietary supplement health claims in general – which cross many health categories and ingredient types? That such a person does not exist does not undermine the science behind these products one iota.

Claims substantiated by science

Our member companies can substantiate the claims they make on their products. And many of them are conducting important research which is increasing the collective knowledge on the health benefits of nutritional ingredients. I’ve met those working in the labs, diving into the studies, and conducting clinical research. I’ve seen them present their compelling and meaningful findings. In fact, Haspel could have seen some of this for herself, too, as I invited her to attend our Day of Science symposium where such research is presented and discussed. She declined the invitation.

Dismissing this mammoth body of work with a broad brush because it is funded by industry is an insult to these scientists’ integrity and ethics, especially considering industry’s support of research often goes beyond financial support. For instance, I’ve seen companies donate ingredients or products for use in studies. I’ve also seen companies provide services, such as encapsulating or packaging. These contributions made by industry are for the advancement of science regardless of the outcome.

Irresponsible players added in to mix

I also find it curious that Haspel casually mentions products with claims such as “enlarge your penis” as if that’s somehow a huge portion of the industry. I know of no responsible company that sells such products or makes such claims. These types of spurious claims, are not a part of mainstream, responsible dietary supplement industry, and are certainly not to be found in the supplement aisle of reputable stores. Responsible manufacturers, in fact, join with Haspel in condemning these outliers. They may even join reputable trade associations to distinguish themselves from these types of companies and claims. Tarring an entire industry by the bad actions of a few is not only unfair, it is illogical, and more importantly, doesn’t do anything to expose and remove the bad actors. 

I encourage industry scientists to take up this mantle. Share this story with your networks – email, social, and otherwise. Make sure the world hears that responsible supplement companies are based in science, and that the professionals who conduct, oversee, and, yes -- fund it -- are ethical and honest in the way that they communicate about it. And share what your science is showing about the benefits of particular products and ingredients. With journalists like Haspel – and unfortunately, there are plenty more like her – turning a blind eye to the facts about this industry, we need to make sure our customers and potential customers hear the truth. #SupplementScience is established, intense, and brimming with new findings consistently. Let’s join together to make sure that the public sees and comes to understand better what we all know well so they will not fall victim to biased journalists’ tired and predictable scare tactics.

Editor's note: Andrea Wong, Ph.D., is the senior vice president, scientific and regulatory affairs of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), the leading trade association for the dietary supplement and functional food industry.

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