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Are your customers now afraid of multivitamins and other supplements?

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The latest studies on vitamin E, multivitamins and other supplements are only going to confuse shoppers more. Help your customers by understanding the research—the good and the flawed aspects of it.

A quick Google news search on “multivitamins” turns up a staggering array of scary headlines from across the globe: “More evidence against vitamin use,” writes The New York Times. “Dietary supplements linked to higher death risk,” reports MedPage Today. “Vitamins do more harm than good,” pens a health reporter from News.com.au in Australia. I could but won’t go on.

Unless you’ve been deliberately ignoring the news this week (which I admit can be tempting to do at times), you know that the trigger for this barrage of negative supplement press was the publication of not one but two very damning research studies related to dietary supplements. On Monday, the Archives of Internal Medicine published a study that found the use of multivitamins and other supplements to increase the risk of death in older women. Then on Tuesday, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a report that said men who take vitamin E are at higher risk of developing prostate cancer.

Not surprisingly, the supplement trade associations and many health care practitioners rose to the defense of supplements by pointing out numerous flaws in this latest research and how it is being portrayed in the media. These voices are important—and posed some very critical questions regarding the methodology and interpretations of this research. The reality is, however, this side of the story is being drowned out by anti-supplement rhetoric.

Without getting into the argument that powerful forces (i.e. Big Pharma) could be influencing the design of these studies to ensure their failure, I must express my concern over how this kind of research—and, more significantly, its generally one-sided coverage in the mainstream media—will affect regular consumers who are trying to improve their nutrition and are looking to better eating in conjunction with supplementation to do just that. Will these people see a headline like, “Vitamins linked to earlier death,” and think: Wow! Even vitamins can kill me. So what’s the use of trying to get healthy at all?

Most regular supplement users likely understand the benefits of the dietary supplements they take. They probably see and feel the result of taking these products and investing in proper nutrition every day. But those people who are not yet committed to improving their nutrition are likely to be swayed by sensational headlines that lump all vitamins and supplements into the “worthless” and even “dangerous” categories.

Although the trade associations and supplement manufacturers must help consumers make sense of negative research-related press, the onerous of this work really falls to supplement retailers. After all, you’ll be the ones who get the questions like: Is vitamin E dangerous? Should I tell my mother to stop taking her multivitamin? Which supplements are safe to take?

I have little hope that the sales associates in conventional grocery or big-box stores would be able to handle these types of questions at all. Natural products retailers and specialty supplement stores, on the other hand, are in a prime position to help their shoppers navigate the murky science and misinformation swirling around supplements right now. By understanding the research—the good and the flawed aspects of it—you will be able to communicate this information to your customers.

Along with reading the actual studies and our analysis of this research, I would suggest reaching out to the Natural Products Association, the Council for Responsible Nutrition and other supplement trade associations to educate yourself (and, more importantly, your staff!) on this latest research and how it should be interpreted. Prepare yourself for the questions that are likely to be coming your way.

Your customers will thank you.

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

on Oct 18, 2011

Statement from Natural Products Association (NPA) Vice President of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs Cara Welch, Ph.D., about recent concerns regarding the alleged risks of dietary supplements in the Archives of Internal Medicine:

"The Natural Products Association advocates that consumers use dietary supplements as part of a healthy lifestyle. Most vitamin and mineral supplements are taken to address or prevent deficiencies. While we would prefer that Americans get these nutrients from their diet, studies have consistently shown that they do not take in the essential compounds they need.

I'm always pleased to see analysis on the long-term effects of supplementation. This study, however, is quite limited in scope; the data is observational and self-reported so contributing factors are not addressed. Subsequently, the authors cannot conclude any cause and effect and there is no reason why women should change what they're doing based on this report.

There are plenty of studies published that demonstrate the benefit of supplementation and fortification. This specific study should not dissuade the general public from the benefits of addressing a vitamin or mineral deficiency with dietary supplements. As always, consumers should discuss their supplement usage with their health care professional."

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