On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver had a go at medical shills and the supplement industry. And I couldn’t be happier.
I’ve always hated over-the-top, miracle cure marketing, so I’m very happy to see John Oliver help expose this sham to a larger audience. I’m even happy about his rant on the supplement industry, because I think it’ll help keep some of the bad apples in check. Although, I do think his stance of more and more regulation is misguided. Read on as I dig into the details.
This article is a little over 1600 words long and should take about 8 minutes to read. If you watch the videos, that’ll add an additional 17 minutes.
There are 8 main sections, including a summary of my thoughts and some extra goodies at the end. Here’s what they cover:
- John Oliver vs. Dr. Oz – This part’s hilarious.
- The Numbers – How the supplement industry compares to the food and drug industries.
- Food vs. Supplements – It’s actually tough to tell them apart and here’s why that’s matters.
- Regulatory Considerations – A very quick overview of how the US government regulates drugs, supplements and food.
- What I Believe – Why the supplement industry exists, and what we can do to make it better.
- What You Can Do – Steps the consumer can take to educate herself.
- Full Segment – The full Last Week Tonight with John Oliver segment.
- TL;DR – Too long; didn’t read: a summary of the ideas I cover in this article.
- Food or Supplement, Which Is It? – Bonus infographic.
John Oliver vs. Dr. Oz
Magical. Miracle. Lightning In A Bottle.
Just some of the ways Dr. Oz describes the supplements and supplement ingredients he promotes on his show. Of course, in front of congress, Dr. Oz sings a different tune:
Senator Dean Heller: Do you believe that there’s a miracle pill out there?
Dr. Oz: There’s not a pill that’s going to, long term, help you lose weight, live your best life, without diet and exercise.
Senator Dean Heller: Do you believe that there’s a magic weight loss cure out there?
Dr. Oz: Eht, eht … the word mag… if you’re selling something because it’s magical … No.
Dr. Oz: This little bean has scientists saying they found a magic weight loss cure for everybody.
John Oliver says it best:
Name me one case where a man named Oz claimed mystical powers and led people horribly astray … it’s never happened!
In other words, don’t use your credentials to spew BS (argumentum ab auctoritate). Dr. Oz is better off not calling the show Dr. Oz, he should call it something else, like …
I couldn’t agree more with Oliver’s stance on Dr. Oz. I hate to see someone using their credentials to hype-up weight loss miracles. Shills and misleading advertising do serious negative damage to the supplement industry. It should be noted, however, that regulation exists to deter these types of sales tactics: the FDA’s labeling regulations and the FTC’s truth-in-advertising regulation.
These regulations exist with the goals of educating the consumer. In many cases, they do help deter companies from making ridiculous claims. Compare today’s environment to how things used to be.
But what about John’s larger point – is there more regulation needed for the dietary supplement industry?
To understand the current state of matters, it’s important to bring some context into the discussion. As John says, the supplement industry generates $32 billion dollars a year in the US (per Forbes.com) and $68 billion a year according to research from Euromonitor.
Let’s compare that to the food industry as a whole.
The World Bank puts the food and agriculture sector at 10% of global gross domestic product, which, all the way back in 2006, would make it about $4.8 trillion. (Forbes)
And the pharmaceutical industry?
The global pharmaceuticals market is worth US$300 billion a year, a figure expected to rise to US$400 billion within three years. (World Health Organization)
It’s important to note that supplements are less than a drop in the bucket when compared to the gargantuan food and pharmaceuticals industries as a whole. Not only that, but the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act defines dietary supplements as a category of food. So really, we’re just looking at a tiny fraction of the food industry itself.
Food vs. Supplements
What’s the difference between food and supplements?
Per the FDA:
A dietary supplement is a product intended for ingestion that contains a “dietary ingredient” intended to add further nutritional value to (supplement) the diet. A “dietary ingredient” may be one, or any combination, of the following substances: a vitamin. a mineral.
So, how do you draw the line? Whey protein, for example seems to fit the supplement bill. But what about 10 eggs consumed strictly for their protein contents? What about a protein powder fortified with choline and other nutrients contained in the yolk? What about egg beaters?
In fact, even for the manufacturer, the line can be blurry between what’s a dietary supplement and what’s a food. Just take a look at this list of energy drinks and tell me which is a food, and which is a supplement (answer at the bottom of this article):
- Java Monster Loca Moca Coffee + Energy
- Starbucks Doubleshot Energy + Coffee
- Red Bull Energy Drink
- Rockstar Energy Drink
- EAS Myoplex nutrition Drink
- FRS Healthy Protein Drink
Meanwhile, dietary risks have surpassed smoking as the number one threat to Americans:
source: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation – Dietary risks are leading cause of disease burden in the US and contributed to more health loss in 2010 than smoking, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar
And yet, few disparage the lack of regulation in the food industry with such vitriol, as John did in his discussion of the dietary supplement industry. When talking about nutrition issues, we don’t blame regulation – or lack thereof – most blame education. And rightly so.
Of the three, drugs are the clearly the most strictly regulated. In general, the FDA considers new drugs to be unsafe until they are proven safe through clinical trials. And the FDA must approve any new drug before it can be legally sold in the US.
Interestingly, if a dietary supplement makes claims of working like a drug (e.g. treating or curing a disease) the FDA will treat it like a drug and crack down on the manufacturer if it hasn’t passed clinical trial.
However, when labeling your product as a dietary supplement (as opposed to a food product) you have to meet even stricter regulations. Supplements are subject to all the FDA regulations regarding adulteration and misbranding that are applicable to foods. Additionally, dietary supplements have to meet the following criteria:
- The manufacturer of a dietary supplement or dietary ingredient is responsible for ensuring that the product is safe before it is marketed.
- FDA is responsible for taking action against any unsafe dietary supplement product after it reaches the market.
Oliver makes a big deal about the first bullet point in his segment. He takes issue with the responsibility falls on the manufacturer, but how is that different from any other product under the food umbrella? The FDA doesn’t test every new Dorito flavor that hits the shelves.
What I Believe
The supplement industry is not inherently good or evil; and our understanding of nutrition speaks to the industry’s necessity. As humans spread across the globe and our dietary habits change, it’s clear that we either can’t or won’t get all the nutrition we need from our diets. It’s within these two use-cases, that we find the necessity of supplementation:
- Optimize diet to reach your potential
- Compensate for a nutrient deficiency
Two sides of the same coin really.
But, for the industry to continue and flourish, companies must be honest and encourage education. One of Flow Athletic’s core values is: honesty and transparency are central to our relationships with our athletes, fans, friends and family.
We’re a small company, so I can’t speak first hand to the amount of lobbying our “supplement industry” does, but I do know that increased regulatory oversight rarely leads to less lobbying. Instead, it often leads to reduced competition (see: Net Neutrality).
So, even though I really enjoyed his segment on our industry, I believe there’s one thing Mr. Oliver failed to do – suggest an alternative regulatory policy. May I suggest we agree on an alternative educational policy instead?
What You Can Do
- Be sure to read and study the ingredients label.
- Verify that there are human studies using the ingredients in the label. Examine.com and Google Scholar are amazing resources.
- Ask yourself, do these studies support the advertised claims?
- When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
- Select nutrition that is as close to the original food source as possible.
- Avoid supplements with “new” ingredients until they’ve been proven safe beyond a reasonable doubt
- Follow these tips from the FDA.
- I’m very excited that John Oliver took Dr. Oz down and introduced the topic of supplement regulation to a larger audience.
- The supplement industry has to be discussed in the context of the food and pharmaceutical industries.
- Shills and flagrantly misleading advertising is bad for the industry and hurts the customer. Although the current regulations aren’t perfect, I haven’t heard a better proposal.
- Supplements are a necessity for two reasons: humans can’t or won’t get all the nutrients they need for optimal performance, from their food.
- We in the industry should strive for honesty above all else and endeavor to educate our friends, family, customers and partners.
- Education, not additional regulation, will save the day.
Food or Supplement, Which Is It?
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