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Dietary supplement and functional food industry is ‘placebo-driven’ warns expert

Bethany Hubbard

23rd March, 2012

Monsanto, Kellogg’s and PepsiCo are just a few of the companies cashing in on our addiction to nutraceuticals - the fast-growing pharma food and supplements sector

The burgeoning dietary supplement and functional foods sector is primarily ‘a placebo-driven industry’ a leading expert has told the Ecologist

Driven by consumers eager to gobble up fortified, enhanced and enriched products, the global industry is predicted to be worth $207 billion a year by 2016. In the UK alone, the market for dietary supplements was worth £674.6 million, with multivitamins and fish oils topping the list, according to the NHS

An Ecologist investigation has shown how big brands have caught on to our addiction to ‘quick fix’ consumption. While the products these companies push claim to make us slimmer, younger and fitter, many of them are untested and make promises they just can’t keep. But with consumers hooked on hope, the industry continues to grow.

‘It became apparent to me, that unlike the pharmaceutical industry, which is a proprietary high-profit margin industry driven by clinical research, the [functional] food and dietary supplement industry is a commodity business with low profits and very little clinical research to prove that their products work,’ says Dr. Stephen DeFelice, founder of The Foundation for Innovation in Medicine, who coined the term ‘nutraceutical’ in 1989.

The word, which is a combination of ‘nutrition’ and ‘pharmaceutical,’ describes everything from probiotics to antioxidants to vitamins to energy bars to enriched yogurts. ‘It is a food or part of a food that has a health and medical benefit, including the prevention and treatment of disease,’ he told the Ecologist

DeFelice says the industry has been reluctant to embrace clinical research, meaning many products can’t live up to the claims they make. In 1989, and again in 2002, DeFelice lobbied to bring clinical research into the nutraceuticals industry by proposing his Nutraceutical Research and Education Act (NREA) to the U.S. Congress. But he was dismayed to find little, if any, support for his bill. ‘It’s a marketing driven industry, not a research driven industry,’ he says.   

Unlike pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals don’t generate large profits. As a result, companies are reluctant to invest as heavily in clinical research. ‘The pharmaceutical companies are not interested in funding this type of research because the molecules are not patentable, so there’s no money to be made,’ says Julie Carrier, professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of Arkansas.

DeFelice says he doesn't look negatively upon the industry, but does feel it isn’t living up to its potential. ‘The dietary supplement and the functional food industry is primarily a placebo-driven industry,’ he says. ‘I say that’s good because the risk is not great and the benefit is very, very good. On that alone, I would say ‘Bravo,’ but it’s a shame. It could do so much more.’

Kelloggs, PepsiCo and Nestle

The same companies supplying us with high sugar, high fat foods now appear to be jumping on the nutraceuticals bandwagon. 

In 2010 cereal giant Kellogg’s, maker of Coco Pops and Pop-Tarts, teamed up with Ajinomoto, a Japanese company that specialises in the production of nutraceuticals. In the same year PepsiCo, known for its colas and crisps, acquired 66 per cent of Wimm-Bill-Dann, Russia’s leading functional food dairy business. And in 2011, Nestle Health Science, a division of the company that makes Kit Kat, Nesquick and Smarties, acquired CM&D Pharma Ltd., which specialises in ‘food for special medical purposes’ (FSMPs). 

Nestle claims not to be in the business of nutraceuticals, but a spokesperson for Nestle Health Science said it, ‘offers nutritional solutions for people with specific dietary needs related to illnesses, disease states or the special challenges of different life stages, used under healthcare professional supervision.’ 

Other companies cashing in include pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, who purchased Alacer Corp., maker of Emergen-C dietary supplement, and agro-biotech giant Monsanto, who partnered with global soy ingredient company Solae in 2010 to develop Soymega, the first omega-3 oil derived from soybeans. Kraft, Coca Cola, Unilever, General Mills and Mars also market nutraceuticals.

Have we become too easily swayed by food fads to employ the basic principles of a good diet? In the end, nutrition still boils down to common sense and a balanced meal, say experts. 

‘No single food contains all the essential nutrients the body needs to be healthy and function efficiently,’ says Aine O’Connor, of the British Nutrition Foundation. ‘A healthy and varied diet can help to maintain a healthy body weight, enhance general wellbeing and reduce the risk of a number of diseases including heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and osteoporosis.’ 

For DeFelice, this principle should still be at the core of the industry he helped bring to life. ‘The greatest nutraceutical in the world is a meal,’ DeFelice says. ‘No matter where you are, no matter what you eat, you live. Food keeps you alive.’


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