I had a tough day today. I met with the CEO of a major retailer of dietary supplements and our conversation reminded me of why we became involved in the formulations, manufacture and recommendation of dietary supplements in the first place. After all, we were and always will be a fitness R&D and programming company for evidence-based nutrition, weight control and exercise solutions — NOT a supplement company or manufacturer.
Back in the day, we knew that most people can benefit from the proper use of dietary supplements. So that told us that dietary supplements needed to be part of a sound nutrition program. But we had NO desire to get involved in producing supplements until we started uncovering the problems associated with how supplements were developed and sold. Almost every popular brand we looked at broke at least one of the four laws that we used to scrutinize each product.
Our Four Laws
1) It must work as stated based on research
2) It must be safe as directed
3) Purity levels must be as stated (no contaminants)
4) There must be truth in labeling (the ingredients on the label must be in the bottle in the proper amount)
And all of this must be proved before it can be sold or recommended.
The 4th law is a product of the 1st, which brings me back to my conversation with the CEO. We started talking about all the different products on the market, which ones sell the best and why. I explained that unfortunately best sellers are popular for all the wrong reasons: exaggerated or unsubstantiated claims and/or the price is acceptable to the average consumer.
“Does it matter to you whether the products you carry actually work?” I asked the CEO. To his credit, he said “Yes, and there are studies to back up the claims of the products we carry.” I then asked if his staff takes the time to match the ingredient dosages and forms used in the studies that show a POTENTIAL benefit to the dosages/forms in his products. Of course he said no but that he trusts the formulators since the studies were cited. And that said it all.
Here’s why. It’s too expensive to do it right. If you ask a formulator to design a supplement to compete with another popular supplement, they can’t give you a product where the dosages of ALL the active ingredients match dosages used in studies without going way out of a competitive price range. Almost no other company puts in the amounts of ingredients that have been shown to be effective, so your competitor’s product – even though it might be completely ineffective – is cheaper for consumers. And most consumers don’t know the difference. They just see the price tag.
This is the method used to keep the price down and therefore competitive. Does a supplement contain the proper ingredients? Yes. Does it contain proper amounts or dosage recommendations? No. So most popular dietary supplements violate both law 1 (it must work as stated) and 4 (truth in labeling). It can’t work as stated or implied based on the ingredient amounts, dosage or forms, and therefore the claims are unsubstantiated. In the end, more often than not, the very studies a supplement company cites to support their products actually prove that the product can’t work as claimed. How’s that for irony?
At some point, an extremely obese guy came in the room. He was the leader of this company’s sports nutrition group and wanted to know how we were different from a proprietary formula standpoint. That was an easy answer. I said, “Our formulas’ ingredients are in the right forms and dosages to make the difference we claim. And as I just told your CEO, other companies put in unsubstantiated ingredients or improper amounts of substantiated ingredients that make the product less or completely ineffective in order to keep the price down”. This guy had no idea what the right forms or dosages should be, so there was no point in discussing it further. He only knew the names of the ingredients that are hot in the media and told me that he was always on the lookout for products with a new component or combination of components that had a great story so it would sell fast.
Back to the supplement sales discussion. I began telling both of the guys in the room about how the four laws that govern our line of supplements automatically puts us in a difficult position to compete with popular brands. Our business model is to license fitness facilities to carry our products, and we educate the employees (fitness professional) at those facilities about the science behind our products. We know that unless we have one of our certified fitness professionals explain the difference between our dietary supplements and lower-priced popular brands, we can’t compete.
For example, the fitness professional can give her client examples of the above dosage discussion that clearly explain how some supplements live up to their claims and some don’t. We outsell popular brands 10-1 in our outlets because of the elements of education and scientific proof in our business model. Each dotFIT product sale is a professional recommendation based on medical screening, ingredient or product compatibility, individual statistics and goals, NOT a sales clerk ringing up a sale driven by advertisement or a conversation where no one has a clue about the true science behind the product. Furthermore, if an ingredient is known to cause problems for certain types of people, we say so up front. We list all known ingredient contraindications or potential adverse events, which NO one else does in the supplement industry. They don’t have to, plus it might hurt a sale.
At this point in the meeting people began looking at me funny, like is this guy for real? Once they snapped out of it, they asked how they could get a professional supplement recommendation for themselves and their families. I told them to go to one of our over 700 health club outlets, call or e-mail one of our certified phone coaches, or visit our website and use the free Supplement Screener (which takes about 3 minutes). I then left the building.
I guess my day was tough because I had to face the cold hard truth that retailers don’t care enough about delivering the right message or substantiating claims because they are forced to focus on what might sell. I totally get that. I just can’t do it. I mean, why would I advise someone to waste their hard-earned dollars or to take something that’s not supported by experts who know what they’re talking about?
I believe that if you can’t prove it works and you don’t feel comfortable giving it to your immediate family, you can’t sell it. But maybe that’s just me.