Achieving the right balance between business/marketing objectives and scientific considerations is always a difficult goal. On the one hand, government regulations are flexible in their allowance of claims that can be made for dietary supplements, so many companies are reluctant to commit large financial investments for research that can be “poached” by competitors.
On the other hand, consumers of dietary supplements, particularly athletes, are beginning to ask for (demand) high-quality, well-controlled scientific evidence of a product’s safety and effectiveness before they will make a purchase. The idea of science as a compelling marketing tool has become popular within the past few years-and it is likely to become a much more important consideration as consumers become further educated about supplements and as supplements become more sophisticated in their mechanism and mode of action.
The existing regulations governing dietary supplements permit manufacturers and marketers to make claims for particular ingredients based on the structure or function that they may have in the body (e.g. glucosamine for joints or amino acids for protein synthesis). For these types of structure/function claims, little to no research is required, and a good biochemistry text is the only requirement for generating many claims.
Only a handful of supplement companies take the initiative (and spend the money) to go beyond the basic structure/function claims and support their product or ingredient claims with good research, including both safety/toxicity studies (in animals) and clinical trials (randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies conducted in an appropriate population of human subjects). Anything less is considered of questionable value from a scientific perspective and (hopefully) will soon be of little value from a marketing/business perspective also.
So how much research is enough for dietary supplements? The answer may ultimately come from consumers and marketers, rather than from scientists. As reliably as the sun rises each morning, scientists and health professionals will insist on more research for a particular supplement-a position of critical importance that will undoubtedly help to refine our understanding of the mechanisms by which many supplements work or don’t work.
Unfortunately, more research is not necessarily the most prudent approach when viewed in light of the market pressures under which most supplement companies operate. From one viewpoint,enough research could be defined as the amount needed to convince a skeptical consumer to become a regular user.
At this point in the evolution of dietary supplements, for better or worse, a simple structure/function claim is often enough “evidence”for enthusiastic”early adopters”to take the plunge and start using a new supplement (even though many aspects of safety and effectiveness may not be fully addressed). As consumers become more educated, however, and learn to ask the right questions about ingredients, dosages, and mechanisms they will also become more skeptical (of product claims) and more demanding (for the actual evidence), which will force supplement companies to conduct more research to “prove” their products to potential customers.