Group Targets Consumer Education
Wyn Snow, Managing Editor
to overcome negative publicity about supplements, an industry coalition
called the Dietary Supplement Education Alliance plans to counter
media skepticism and win over consumer confidence. With a website
already up and running and a major PR campaign under way, the Alliance
is the first concerted attempt to systematically brighten the image
of an industry that has long been a media whipping boy.
now, industry response to negative media coverage has been scattered.
According to Elliott Balbert, acting president of DSEA and the chief
executive of leading supplement manufacturer, Natrol, the Dietary
Supplement Education Alliance (DSEA) is designed to change that.
"The media has not been very friendly to the natural products industry,
and as a result of that, it has gone from bad to worse to pretty
ugly," says Balbert. The DSEA has been organized "to put the E back
into DSHEA [the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act of
1994]," and to publicize the benefits of supplements.
during the spring of 2001 through a collaboration of supplement
industry manufacturers, publishers and trade organizations, DSEA
by its own estimate has currently raised over $500,000. While DSEA
may be long overdue from the perspective of supplement manufacturers,
such groups are typical of the American marketplace. Thousands of
trade organizations underwrite public relations campaigns -- including
trade shows and magazine articles -- that educate public and professional
audiences on a host of issues.
supplement industry's pursuit of this course is as much a sign of
maturity as a desire to engage in self-promotion. Given the variety
and complexity of supplement products, such an initiative may be
no more than good business sense and may well provide useful public
service. The medical profession and pharmaceutical industry have
long used education-based public relations to enhance their status
and marketability. For the supplement industry to follow suit seems
taps scientific resources
its first announcements in the summer of 2001, DSEA has sought to
establish its credibility based on scientific expertise. According
to press releases, DSEA's scientific advisory board contains nine
specialists with ten advanced degrees among them (seven PhDs, two
MDs, one DVM, plus a registered pharmacist and registered dietitian).
Specialties include nutrition, plant chemistry, pharmacognosy (the
analysis and characterization of bioactive elements in natural substances),
biochemistry of antioxidants, neuropsychopharmacology, molecular
biology, immunology, cancer research, and naturopathic medicine.
(See sidebar on DSEA
scientific advisory board members and their backgrounds.)
noted earlier, DSEA claims to have raised more than $500,000 from
industry contributors, a sum more than sufficient to ensure that
their information is based on the best scientific knowledge available.
Whatever information DSEA does seek to distribute will be made available
through a number of distribution channels, among them a website
as well as a public relations campaign managed by Hill and Knowlton.
The latter is the largest public relations organization in the world
and a recognized leader in health-related issues management.
created as information resource for consumers
of DSEA's first actions was to create www.SupplementInfo.org. This
new website contains information about
results on who takes supplements and why
of supplement research being funded by the federal government
nature of health benefit claims that supplements can make
statistics on sales of vitamins, minerals, herbs and specialty
website also has feature articles -- currently focusing on consumer
confidence, the health of seniors, proposed legislation for health
plan coverage of supplements, and DSEA-related comments of Senator
Tom Harkin, a long-time supporter of supplementation. The website
also contains a database of information provided by IntraMedicine.com
that covers roughly 180 supplements and 90 health conditions.
highlights science-based approach
new website contains information reviewed by an advisory board of
scientific experts -- according to Joe Betz, PhD, Vice President
and Director of Scientific and Technical Affairs of the American
Herbal Products Association. Betz is also a member of DSEA's Scientific
rigorously scientific approach will be a valuable resource for consumers.
Information about supplements on the Web has been tainted with the
same kinds of exploitative marketing techniques that pervade radio
ads and television infomercials. Identifying reliable, science-based
information about supplements on the Web can often be a challenging
of website still evolving
order to assess the quality of the content on the new DSEA website,
SupplementQuality.com contacted several independent academics
with expertise in both botanical and nutritional supplements. The
results suggest that the DSEA website is still in a "dress rehearsal"
stage. None considered the site better than others with similar
content, and a few offered serious criticism.
Robert Reynolds of the University of Illinois, a leading researcher
on vitamin B6, examined the website's entry for B6 -- and says
its information "can do real harm."
particular, in its section on "Toxicities & Precautions" for B6,
the DSEA website states, "There are no known toxicities associated
with this dietary supplement." But Reynolds
observes, "This is wrong, and they know it! Their next
sentence [concerning side effects] says, 'Occasional side effects
reported with large doses . . . include neurological
toxicities' -- so they know there are serious side effects,
which they describe later on. That same paragraph sort of pooh-poohs
the impact of such side effects when they say, 'It may be necessary
to reduce the dose of this dietary supplement. Tell your doctor
if these side effects become severe or do not go away.'"
continues, "If you have these side effects,
reduce the dose immediately! If the side effects do become
severe or do not go away, it is too late. Permanent neurological
damage has already been done."
criticizes several other points of this website's information about
B6 (see sidebar of Reynolds'
detailed critique) including the website's use of recommended
daily allowance instead of recommended dietary allowance
(RDA). Use of this obsolete term for RDA suggests either ignorance
on the part of the writer, use of information written before the
change in terminology several years ago, or an attempt to "laymanize"
information about supplements for a consumer audience.
Thomas, EdD and a registered dietitian, devoted a full page to DSEA's
SupplementInfo.org website in the July-Sept 2001 edition of his
newsletter, The Dietary Supplement. Thomas says, "The website's
information is useful, but emphasizes the positive potential of
supplements, ignores controversy, and downplays information that
a supplement may be of no benefit."
believes the website has two incompatible goals: to provide "the
complete facts" about supplements, and to promote their benefits
and use. Thomas finds that "A look at DSEA's website quickly reveals
that conveying positive and reassuring feelings about supplements
is its major purpose." He concludes, "The website is basically hype
information being updated
in the supplement database are being remedied -- according to David
Seckman, a member of DSEA's steering committee and Executive Director
of the National Nutritional Foods Association (NNFA). NNFA is the
nation's oldest and largest trade association for natural products.
says, "DSEA members are now finalizing a review of the information
in the IntraMedicine database. There have already been some changes,
and there will be more. IntraMedicine has been very appreciative
of our review. We feel very good about the quality of information
that will be available. For consumers, it will enable people to
get essential information."
Harvey, PhD, Director of Science and Quality Assurance for NNFA,
is one of the site reviewers. Says Harvey, "The process has been
slow because there are so many monographs (to review). However,
the monographs are dynamic and will be updated and improved as new
information appears in the scientific literature."
intended to inform consumers
drug/supplement interactions and the explicit benefits of supplementation,
both controversial topics in the media, Seckman says, "A story came
out today that garlic can interfere with medications for HIV and
other conditions. And when a supplement has interactions, we all
need to know about it. Whether it's garlic or St. John's wort or
whatever. But these stories imply that supplements are not good
for you. Even though a lot of new research shows they are good for
you, information like that tends not to appear in the news. I just
came from my ophthalmologist, where I heard about zinc being good
for the eyes. I think people need and can use that kind of news.
That's why the DSEA website focuses on benefits. It gives valuable
information that consumers need to know."
believes it's important to make sure people use supplements properly.
He says, "If I'm interested in garlic, what concerns should I have?
I can go to SupplementInfo.org and see the positives and the potential
for interaction. We always advise everyone to look at all sides.
What is it used for? What are the possible interactions? It doesn't
do any good for industry or the consumer when people use a supplement
in ways it's not intended for."
for consumer education
concerns about media coverage raise a valid point. Mainstream media
such as the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)
and The New York Times are dismissive in their coverage of
supplements, and often give inaccurate information about them (such
as claims that supplements are untested and unregulated). Invariably,
such coverage is accompanied by sensationalism (at least in the
case of the daily and broadcast media) and reveals a painful lack
of knowledge about supplements in general.
is also important to recognize the economic and cultural biases
against supplements, which DSEA can play a role in overcoming. The
reasons for such biases are numerous and go far beyond the scope
of this editorial, but are worth observing. If DSEA can educate
consumers about the rationale behind prevention-based health care
and link such strategies to reduced costs and enhanced well being,
its resources will be well utilized for the public good.
consumers and the media with solid, science-based information is
an important and laudable goal. DSEA has launched a campaign with
excellent potential for educating both the public and the media
about the very real health benefits of supplements and for encouraging
more balanced media attention.
a litmus test for industry
the last thing consumers need from the producers of dietary supplements
is incorrect information. Like Caesar's wife, the industry must
be above reproach. Consumers cannot determine for themselves which
parts of the supplement database are accurate and which are not.
Thus, the presence of any single piece of incorrect information
casts doubt upon the whole.
DSEA is to play a leadership role, it must do so first by example,
including adherence to the highest quality standards in its content.
We look forward to viewing revised information on the DSEA site
after it has undergone a complete and rigorous scientific review.
Until then, we view SupplementInfo.org for what it is -- a litmus
test for an industry yet to rise above the contention in which it
is still embroiled.