During a panel discussion at Vitafood Virtual Expo earlier this month, Nigel Pollard, chair of the board at Metavate Consulting, portrayed what he described as the 'sad' state of the science in the supplements industry.
“Evidence for natural health products is growing very, very strongly. The thing that’s really sad and a wasted opportunity is that less than 10% of the interventions used in these trials are described accurately.
“This means that 90% of the research is ‘bad science’ because it can’t be reproduced… and that’s a huge waste of money and resources, and we have to change this.”
He went on to say that part of the issue is the ‘anti-evidence’ market environment created from the fact that people can’t find the specific products used in the research, meaning there’s no incentives for the industry to use evidence-based ingredients.
“We need to solve this because of the sustainability of our industry. This weak evidence means we’re wasting a lot of money and we’re easy to pick off by sceptics of natural health,” argued Pollard.
Even more worryingly, he added that ingredients with little scientific backing seem to be gaining more traction than those that are scientifically sound.
"When you look at the top selling herbal substances in the US, the strong evidence herbs are declining in terms of sales at the moment.
"This is what I mean about the anti-evidence environment - we aren't rewarding the ingredients with the best evidence. We're rewarding those that make the sexiest claims."
"...If you're a formulator then you need to make sure the ingredient you're buying is authentic and in doing so at least your starting in a position of some sort of strength.
Kenn Israel, founder of Innovation Nutrition, joined the discussion to add his concerns around evidence-based ingredients and 'sexy' claims.
“We have been chasing a trust gap for decades and we’ve yet to close it and we continually self-sabotage by making the claims the customer wants us to make and maybe the science isn’t fully lined up behind it," he asserted.
Israel argued there is a lack of attention given to ensuring active ingredients are delivered in a meaningful dose for the target health benefit.
"Most of the product development that I see in the industry, I call it noodling and lego – its endless combinations of the same pieces," he said, adding, "at its worst its a Google search for the top five ingredients for a particular health benefit all put together in a product."
But he conceded that the ingredients market doesn't make it easy for product developers who are new to the market.
“The ingredient vendors make our lives as product developers a little bit hellish at times in that so many ingredients at Vitafoods are not legal in EFSA countries… some don’t have full safety and efficacy data yet, not all the claims match up with the science...
“Right now the burden is on the brand and many new brands are created by new people in the industry – they read the claims, they go straight to market and then wonder why they’re in a virtual sling with the regulators."
Israel argued that trade associations and industry alliances can "really make a big difference” in this regard, by working together to call out ingredients that aren't above board - an example being APPC's 'burn it, don't return it' initiative.
Pollard added that huge variability has been found in the levels of the active ingredient between batches of supplements.
"It's important to look at your product as a process, ensure it is reproducible, ensuring every batch the same.
"...Putting the time in and getting it right the first time isn't that hard and we should make it obvious that's the way to go.
"...Control the variables, make sure it reproducible and you're already a long way there, even if you don't have clinicals on the finished product, you already have something special."
He added that large, expensive RCT’s aren’t always necessary as there are creative research methods available today which are very effective. For example, his company uses apps for data collection which he says makes studies 'way cheaper' than a clinical trial.