How has product formulation evolved over the past two decades? Do consumers really care about the science behind a product? Scott Forsberg answers our questions about which products sell, even if the science behind them isn't particularly strong.

Functional Ingredients: Has product formulation evolved or are companies still just combining ingredients that are thought to have a similar effect?

Scott Forsberg: The formulation process for many products is the same now as it was 25 years ago: Simply combine several ingredients that have some research or a history of traditional use for the target indication with an eye toward market differentiation and cost.

However, the best companies have definitely moved toward a model where ingredients are combined not just for their individual properties, but for the way in which they complement each other. That means paying attention to dosage form as well as competing and reinforcing mechanisms of action, safety interactions, stability interactions and bioavailability. It’s a complex process and many companies simply don’t have the resources or the experience to do it right.

Fi: Do consumers care about the science? Or is it more to sell ingredients to manufacturers? 

SF: What consumers really want is credible information. The vast majority of consumers lack the knowledge to really evaluate scientific information, but they are reassured by statements such as “clinically proven” or “shown to be effective in clinical trials.” Good science allows marketers to truthfully make compelling, easily understood claims.

Condition-specific claims are the most powerful, but quantitative and comparative claims about bioavailability or potency are also useful in building consumer confidence and differentiating products. The problem is when marketers claim a product has been clinically proven but the studies are poorly done or taken out of context. That harms consumer trust for the whole industry.

Fi: Can an effective marketing campaign sell a product that’s light on science? Can shoddy marketing kill a product with strong science? What successful product has both?

SF: Selling products is easy, selling them truthfully and ethically is hard. Many successful products that are light on science sell well because the product claims are exaggerated, incomplete or misstated. Rarely are product claims outright lies, but misleading claims are all too easy to find.

The superfruit category is an example of how good marketing has created an entire business based on comparatively little hard clinical evidence of benefit through appealing to novelty and lifestyle. Despite the lack of science, consumers have an intuitive belief that nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables are healthy and worth the premium. To their credit, rather than letting the category fade, many of these superfruit companies are actively pursuing better science. Companies like POM have combined both good marketing and product-specific science to create a terrific success. 

On the other hand, lots of great, deep-science products are overlooked because the science is complex or doesn’t translate well to consumers. Curcumin is a good example of this. 

Fi: You and your family run a martial arts school. How did that become part of your life?

SF: Part of the attraction to martial arts came from my time in Asia. I have always admired the synthesis of mind and body inherent in marital arts. But mostly I just have three boys with lots of energy. A couple of years ago my wife and I had a chance to step up and become certified as instructors, so now we teach two classes a week and our boys work with us. Martial arts turned out to be a great way to channel all that energy into self-confidence, discipline and self-respect. It’s really been a great way to spend constructive time as a family doing something that promotes physical and spiritual well being.