For botanical supplements, sound science beats celebrity endorsements

By Adi Menayang

- Last updated on GMT

Photo: iStock/theevening
Photo: iStock/theevening

Related tags Obesity

Botanical supplements come and go in public consciousness, receiving a spike of attention after a celebrity endorsement, and then fading away for one reason or another.

A high-profile example is green coffee bean extract, dubbed as a ‘magic, miracle pill’ by Dr Oz in a show that aired in 2012. This caused a spike of searches for the extract, based on Google Trends analysis—but then it only went downhill from there.

Looking at sales data, sales for supplements with the extract fell in the multi-outlet channel (MULO) by almost 41% year-over-year in 2015, according to the 2015 Herb Market Report by HerbalGram​. This is the same time period when researchers retracted​ a study on green coffee bean extract’s benefits, The Washington Post​ reported​.

As of now, the public’s interest in green coffee bean extract hovers far below its 2012 spike, just above its popularity before the TV segment. Does this mean there’s no science backing it?

The same fate as asparagus extract

Looking at the matter independently, Dr Stefan Gafner, chief science officer at the American Botanical Council​, told NutraIngredients-USA that, “the promise of losing weight by swallowing a tablet or a capsule is rather attractive, and so people are willing to take a risk and purchase such products.”

“In the end, those products that do not meet consumers expectations will eventually fade away, but often to be replaced by another promising ingredient,”​ he added.

Dr Gafner recalled his early days as a pharmacist. “We had an asparagus extract that was marketed as a dietary supplement for weight loss. It eventually disappeared – I could never find any scientific data in support of its use as a weight loss product,”​ he said.

“Green coffee bean extract may fall into a similar category – the fact that these products were endorsed by celebrities may have increased the hype surrounding the ingredients, but it was limited to a short period.”

Hoodia, adulterated and lacked science

Despite the retracted study and loss of popularity, several companies still have green coffee extract supplements on the market. NOW Foods is an example.

“NOW never made any weight management/ weight loss claims about green coffee extract. NOW still offers a Green Coffee Extract, although sales of that product have fallen significantly,”​ Jim Ritcheske, product marketing manager at NOW, told NutraIngredients-USA.

Green coffee bean extract isn’t alone—another example of a once buzzword botanical supplement is hoodia, which spiked in 2006 internet searches far above green coffee bean extract’s peak.

A quick look does not reveal if any celebrity endorsement occurred in that time, but it does show it was all the rage. A New York Timesarticle from 2006​ said that it became a trend after wind that Pfizer was developing products using the African plant, but called the botanical ‘not yet’ an ‘appetite killer for a killer appetite’ after studies were inconclusive.

“Hoodia was lacking science, but over time its popularity diminished and other factors such as adulteration, sustainability, and competition from newer ingredients caused sales to fall,”​ Ritcheske argued. NOW used to have a few SKU’s of hoodia, but today only sells one.

While Ritcheske attributed lack of studies as a cause for drop in sales, Dr Gafner saw another reason. “I don’t think that the lack of convincing scientific data is necessarily the main factor in the lower sales,”​ according to Dr. Gafner. “If the products would have worked to the consumers’ satisfaction, these ingredients may still be exhibiting sales growth.”

St. John’s Wort, not just the depression herb

Relatively quiet when it comes to buzz is St. John’s Wort, which has Google searches far below the previous two discussed botanicals, but shares the downward trajectory. It got some publicity from Oprah in 2007 as a natural remedy for depression, but never caused much of a stir then.

St John's wort © iStock  AlexRaths
St John's Wort. Photo; iStock/Alex Raths

According to David Winston, founder and president of Herbalist & Alchemist, St. John’s Wort differs from green coffee bean extract and hoodia, which he dubbed as weight loss fads and ingredients his brand has never worked with.

St. John’s Wort, on the other hand, “has a long history of use as a nervine, anti-inflammatory and anti-nociceptive.”​ But, “after it was touted on Oprah as the ‘Depression Herb’ and the general public flocked to use it, it was found that St John’s wort can affect the metabolism of some medications,”​ he added.

Sustaining a market for botanical supplements

A lesson to learn for manufacturers of weight loss supplements, according to Dr Gafner, is that it is important to have good clinical studies that support the efficacy and safety of their ingredient, and to ensure high quality of the finished product to ensure consistent results.

“It is also necessary to point to the importance of changes in the diet, i.e., a reduction in calorie intake, for a sustainable weight loss, and to raise awareness that a healthy body weight is not likely obtained by relying on a dietary supplement, or prescription drug, for that matter, alone,” ​he added.

For Winston, it is about accurate wording. In the instance of St. John’s Wort, calling it the ‘depression herb’ is inaccurate. “It can be used for a few types of depression such as GI-based depression, hepatic depression or seasonal affective disorder, but it is not that effective for other types of depression,”​ he argued.

Related topics Research Botanicals

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