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Get savvy about supplement marketing
(Originally published Nov 2015, updated with even more awesomeness July 2019)
There are tens of thousands of supplements marketed as “research-based”…but most aren’t
Here’s how to see through the hype
Eeeeeveryone tries to impress us with their “health studies” because it works. Being backed by science is a great selling feature.
The problem is that very few supplements have robust research to back their claims–no matter how hard they try to convince you. (Spoiler alert: I know of just one.)
As a health and wellness professional there are tons of opportunities to market supplements to your clients and audience with affiliate links, wholesale accounts, online shops, sponsorship opportunities, etc. You may be thinking about (or re-thinking) supporting certain supplements.
I’ve been contacted twice in the past week about my willingness to accept sponsorship and/or become a distributor. You may get these emails too.
(FYI – I’m not accepting either offer.)
Here are some things to look out for and where to do a quick “fact check” to see if they’re selling science or hyped up sciency sounding stuff.
But first, let me share some cases where I discovered unsupported hype.
Examples of supplement marketing hype
The probiotic with decades of “research”
I had a US client who wanted to open an online supplement store. She hired me to ghostwrite some blog posts for her that talked about the awesomeness of some of the products she wanted to include.
I was excited to dive into the research and learn more about different supplements. Especially the ones with lots of studies.
Naturally, a probiotic company rose to the top because of their many convincing health claims (i.e., claims that their product improved health). Their website said their probiotic strain had decades of research behind it. Naturally, I contacted them asking for the research and they happily replied with their list of studies.
I kinda felt like a kid in a candy shop–someone just gave me a list of supplement studies to read. #NerdAlert
I went through the list to find the studies they mentioned so I could review them and potentially reference them for her blog post.
I quickly found out that only a few of these studies were even published in PubMed. And, just three of them were even done in people (clinical studies).
I followed-up with the probiotic company asking where I can find the other studies listed in their bibilography because the weren’t in PubMed.
I never heard back.
To be honest, I felt like I was in this Saturday Night Live skit (at 1:50).
- Me: It doesn’t say that.
- Supplement company: Sure it does.
- Me: No, it doesn’t.
- Supplement company: Yes, it’s in there. You have to read it.
- Me: I’ve read it. It’s not in there.
- Supplement company: You’re right. It’s not in there. I just assumed you hadn’t read it.
I wrote the blog post based on the limited evidence they provided and ignored their unsupported hypey claims.
If you want to make claims that your product improves health, you really should study it in people to see…if it improves their health.If you want to make claims that your product improves health, you really should study it in people to see...if it improves their health. #Supplement #Health Click To Tweet
The supplement that wasn’t even available in the country
Another client, a Canadian, was skeptical about supporting a supplement because it was an MLM (multi-level marketing) opportunity–but the product looked like a great fit for her. So, she hired me to do a bit of digging before she decided to make a final decision.
I found that the hype they were selling on their US website was about their new product that was not available in Canada.
Yes, you read that right.
All of the health claims the company was making was based on a product that was not even legally available to her or her clients.
After seeing the info, she said, “I don’t think I’ll be jumping on the band wagon for this one just yet.”
What to look out for in supplement marketing
The wellness industry is huge, growing and uber-competitive. Not to mention there are few, if any, regulations and reasons why a supplement company would conduct quality studies on their product. Good studies can be very expensive, and may not prove a great health claim to boost sales enough to earn back the investment. Plus, they may not get a patent for exclusive selling rights.
The very few supplement companies that do these studies show that their company is head-and-shoulders above the vast, vast majoroity of the industry.
There are a few things to consider.
The company and product need to be legal
That is, they should follow applicable laws and not lie to try to sell more product.
While the US has limited regulations, in Canada, there are some they need to follow. These are similar, but less stringent, than those that apply to drugs. Some include having an eight-digit NPN on the front label, labelling all required warnings and cautions for safe use, and listing only approved or proven health claims. Also, they need to meet cleanliness and testing standards for raw materials and manufacturing, and they need to be able to collect and address complaints and side effects.
Their products, marketing, and sales conversations should be ethical and research-based
The company needs to either stick with pre-approved health claims based on their active ingredients or if they want bigger and better claims, they need the studies to prove it.
This is where the 99 percent meets the one percent. Almost no supplements have done quality clinical studies to prove their product does anything over and above all the other products with the same active ingredients. If it doesn’t have these kinds of clinical studies, then it’s just like every other product in its category.
Personally, I only support those supplements that have these studies.
Spoiler alert: I only know of one.
How to research supplements
There are great resources to check if the supplement company and their products are legal and high-quality, and to see the science behind the active ingredients
Here’s a list of the websites to research supplements and find out for yourself.
Look out for unethical marketing practices like:
- Unapproved products being sold in your country
- Not having the required warnings and cautions for safe use
- “Too good to be true” health claims
- Promote health effects that are not on the label (a.k.a. “off-label” promotions…wasn’t pharma accused of this in the 1990s???)
- Products that have been adulterated with heavy metals or prescription drugs
To save you some trouble, I’ve done a bit of research on certain supplements:
- There are toxic heavy metals in prenatal supplements?
- Foods vs. Supplements: The Turmeric vs. Curcumin Edition
- Melatonin Supplements – What do they actually do?
- Multivitamin Benefits – Unbranded & Hype-free
- Publish your own supplement information by checking out my done-for-you (researched!) articles
Who is head-and-shoulders above the rest?
Yes, there are a couple of supplement companies I support.
- They are independent, unbiased source of scientific information about supplements and nutrition. They look at thousands of peer-reviewed published clinical studies done on supplements, and evaluate and tabulate the results.
- They offer an amazing free resource online if you want to look up a supplement ingredient to see what the science shows it actually can do to help people reach their health goals.
- They also sell a few nutrition and supplement resources, but they don’t sell or promote any supplements.
- I personally bought and use their Supplement-Goals Reference all the time. My affiliate link is here, a non-affiliate link is here
- They are not the “run of the mill” probiotic. This brand has several clinical trials published in peer-review journals. These studies are done in people with their product (not random studies on other similar products–THEIR product). The clinical trials show their product actually reduces the risk of gastrointestinal side effects and hospital-acquired C. diff infections in people who take antibiotics. And, having done these studies, they have the claims approved on their product label!
- Bio-K licensed and approved health claims, based on them having done robust clinical trials on their product: 1-Helps to reduce the risk of antibiotic associated diarrhea 2-Helps to reduce the risk of Clostridium Difficile associated diarrhea (CDAD) in hospitalized patients 3-Helps support intestinal/gastrointestinal health 4-Could promote a favorable gut flora 5-Helps improve quality of life in people with diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome.
- I recommend their product to be used daily throughout the course of antibiotics, and for a few days afterwards. It is not necessary to take this (rather expensive) product on an ongoing basis.
- I have no affiliation with them…but maybe I should see if they offer one. 😉
For these companies and products I support, if I find out that there is a legal or ethical issue, a safety or efficacy or quality issue, I will definitely re-evaluate my affiliation with them.
Here’s how I know this stuff (and I’m happy to share with you)
Here’s where my stance comes from:
- I am trained as a scientist.
- I have a lot of work experience in the health products industry making sure things were done legally.
These have really fine-tuned my BS meter when it comes to “sciency” hyped up marketing/sales information and actual robust scientific information.
Signing off and toasting: To being savvy about supplement marketing!
Over to you
What convincing, but untrue, supplement marketing have you seen? What do you look for before recommending a supplement?
I’d love to know in the comments below!
Featured products for your credible health blog:
I’m Leesa Klich, MSc., R.H.N.
Health writer – Blogging expert – Research nerd.
I help health and wellness professionals build their authority with scientific health content. They want to stand out in the crowded, often unqualified, market of entrepreneurs. I help them establish trust with their audiences, add credibility to their services, and save them a ton of time so they don’t have to do the research or writing themselves. To work with me, click here.