Is the supplement industry in for a reverse Dr Oz effect?

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Many of the questionable ingredients touted on the Dr Oz Show related to weight loss. ©Getty Images - Michael Poehlmann
Many of the questionable ingredients touted on the Dr Oz Show related to weight loss. ©Getty Images - Michael Poehlmann

Related tags Dr oz Dietary supplement Dietary supplement industry Fraud weight loss products

The Senate candidacy of Dr Mehmet Oz, MD, could pose a public relations risk for the dietary supplement industry, as the prominent media personality gets attacked for being a ‘quack’ who has promoted questionable products.

Dr Oz, who hosted a TV show that focused on nutrition, dieting strategies, alternative treatments  and dietary supplements, threw his hat into the ring in December for the Republican Party primary for the Pennsylvania Senate seat that is currently held by retiring Republican incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey.

As polarizing a figure as Dr Oz has been, he became even more so when he attracted the endorsement of former Pres. Donald Trump recently. Some might opine that that’s all just political muckraking.  What has it got to do with the supplement industry? Well, potentially plenty.

Trolling the ‘quack’

Rolling Stone​ magazine splashed this headline when the Trump endorsement news came out: ‘Fraud Endorses Quack.’  According to Rolling Stone​’s reporting, Trump’s friendliness to Oz extends back to 2016, when Oz trumpeted the results of Trump’s medical evaluation that was made public during his first campaign for president. 

It subsequently came to light that Trump had basically dictated the statement about his health which an MD had then signed. Oz reportedly took the ‘evaluation’ at face value.

That uncritical airing of information characterized at least some of the segments that ran on The Dr Oz Show.  For example, in 2011 Oz featured Dr Joseph Mercola, the show talking about the many benefits of astaxanthin, which was little known in the mainstream market at that time.  The fact that Mercola allegedly had an astaxanthin product ready for launch wasn’t disclosed on the program. 

The astaxanthin market soared after the segment, igniting a race among producers to meet the unexpected demand.  Astaxanthin is a carotenoid ingredient sourced for Haematococcus pluvialis ​algae.

Algae production facilities are neither quick nor easy to bring into operation.  While hard data is difficult to come by, it’s a good guess that at least some of the astaxanthin products in the market in that first year after the segment aired didn’t contain much astaxanthin.

At least astaxanthin has credible science backing its effects.  That was less true of another craze that Oz helped ignite — green coffee bean extract as a weight management tool.

Oz called green coffee bean extract a ‘magic’ weight loss solution on the show and referred to a study showing large effects for the ingredient.  That study was roundly shot down by the Federal Trade Commission and was ultimately retracted.

Senate hearing

That episode and others led to an embarrassing appearance before a Senate committee in 2014, a hearing which focused on allegedly deceptive advertising about over the counter weight loss products.

"My show is about hope," ​Oz said at the hearing. "We've engaged millions in programs -- including programs we did with the CDC -- to get folks to realize there are different ways they can rethink their future."

In addition to the ridicule from Rolling Stone, Oz’s supplement endorsements have provided fodder for the comic monologue of noted late night TV celebrity Steven Colbert.  Colbert remarked in December after Oz announced his candidacy that, “turns out, running for Senate is another weird trick to reduce belly fat.”​ 

In a more recent segment after the Trump endorsement Colbert listed in a satirical aside some of the more recently discredited ingredients that have been touted as quick fixes by Oz such as raspberry ketones.

Dr Oz has already been attacked by his primary rival, David McCormick, for his Turkish heritage and for the fact that Oz still holds a Turkish passport to go along with his American one. (There are several other candidates but Oz and McCormick are the frontrunners.) Political observers also presume McCormick, who is a US Army veteran and until January was CEO of one of the world’s wealthiest hedge funds, will attack Oz for being too liberal. 

But if the campaign comes down to the wire leading up the May 17 primary, it’s a sure bet all stops will be pulled out, which could include attacks on the integrity of the nutritional recommendations Oz has made.

Finding a legitimate market boost

It seems the dietary supplement industry was happy to profit from the market boosts offered by product mentions on Oz’s show.  While some of Oz’s endorsements were tainted by either weak (and, one presumes, insufficiently vetted) science and/or undisclosed commercial entanglements, many of the ingredients touted on the show were fully legit.

The Oz episode points to a threat for the supplement industry going forward.  Oz was just the harbinger of the influencer marketing landscape that is becoming an increasingly bigger part of the way supplements are promoted. 

There is legitimate science backing many of the ingredients touted by the industry, but it almost never offers simple or quick solutions to the issues that end users face.  Responsible messaging will emphasize the positive science while eschewing the magic pill aspects this kind of marketing seems to so easily devolve into.

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