Nutritional supplements have been an area of interest for many consumers and manufacturers alike for many years now.
Dr. Ursula Munoz-Najar, Senior Research Scientist and Clinical Research Coordinator for Lang Pharma Nutrition is a leading researcher in the nutraceutical industry. She applies rigorous scientific standards to the research behind new supplements, and she took the time to discuss the recent past, present, and future of the industry.
We’ll talk just a bit about Lang Pharma’s role in the nutraceutical industry then move on to a more general discussion of nutritional supplements and what the average consumer needs to know when they’re shopping for supplements.
The realities of supplements
The way nutritional supplements are viewed can change wildly from person to person. For some, they are a cure-all. For others, they don’t work. The reality, as we explore in this interview, is that it depends heavily on which supplement we’re talking about and which company manufactured it.
As Dr. Munoz-Najar explained to us, the federal regulation of supplements is not as stringent as the regulation of drugs and is not always enforced on a regular basis due to lack of resources in the FDA.
Prior to working with Lang Pharma Nutrition, Dr. Munoz-Najar didn’t have a well-developed opinion about supplements. But studying supplements directly opened her eyes to the immense opportunity there is in this field to make a positive change to ultimately benefit the consumer.
“Under the current regulatory system, the system for how health claims on dietary supplements are substantiated and regulated can be confusing and can allow for some bad actors to sell products with little efficacy, while still making health claims”, Dr. Munoz-Najar notes. This is especially true for smaller brands selling via e-commerce which are more likely to “fly under the radar” of regulatory enforcement.
“In order to ensure a higher standard, Lang Pharma Nutrition created a central position to focus on research standards and validate the health claims in its products. I was brought on board to lead this effort.”
Let’s take a closer look at what that work is really like.
The clinical science behind Lang Pharma
Dr. Munoz-Najar efforts are primarily directed to find ingredients, and later fully-formed supplements, with health claims that are directly based on clinical studies and good science. This helps consumers to understand exactly what they’re buying and helps them to decide whether it’s the right product for them.
“With Lang, it all starts with strong clinical science. The team leans on me to make the crucial determination that an ingredient can rise to a high scientific standard. This is a novel approach in the mass-market and it is exciting to know that our approach results in many thousands of people consuming the highest quality supplements that can truly have a meaningful impact on their health.”
This approach is very different from that of brands whose main focus is to highlight trendy ingredients and appealing packaging, rather than ensuring the formula is truly efficacious.
Lang’s more responsible and scientifically sound approach will hopefully become the new norm in supplements, but for that to happen there will also need to be an increased demand from consumers for transparency and substantiation. If consumers avoid products that haven’t been rigorously reviewed and aren’t transparent, then more brands will be forced to raise their standards.
There are several supplements that have become especially popular with American consumers over the last several years, and one of the most popular has been Omega-3s. Dr. Munoz-Najar elaborates:
“Specialty supplements such as Omega-3 oils are now huge among American consumers. There is an enormous body of evidence that suggests that Omega-3 oils containing DHA and EPA may reduce the risk for hypertension and coronary heart disease. There is also growing evidence from human studies that Omega-3 oils may support many other physiological functions. Buyers of this supplement are constantly looking for innovations including the sustainability of the natural source, oil purity, concentration, bioavailability, and effective combinations.”
Omega-3 oils have been shown to have positive effects on health for many people. This also means that competition between supplement manufacturers is intense, which has led to the push for the kinds of innovations and convenience factors that Dr. Munoz-Najar mentioned above.
This is a great example of supplement competition that focuses on what’s best for the consumer.
The limits of supplements
For many different reasons, anything that comes in pill or capsule form has come to be seen by many Americans as an all-in-one solution to whatever problem they’re experiencing.
Experiencing aches and pains? Take some ibuprofen and you’ll be able to go about your business. Losing your hair? This capsule regimen will probably take care of that.
However, taking a pill is not a magic solution to all of our health problems.
Here’s what Dr. Munoz-Najar said on the topic:
“Nutraceuticals are not a replacement for a healthy diet. Fortunately, more and more consumers are educating themselves on the real value of nutraceuticals. It’s up to the industry leaders to further educate consumers and to provide them with properly validated health claims on product packaging and online resources.”
Unfortunately, we can’t count on the “bad actors” of the industry to shift gears or disappear right away, so in the meantime, it’s up to us to be careful about the products we choose.
The future of supplements
We’ve already touched on how certain companies mislead consumers in subtle ways. But one of the most important tools unsavory brands can use to boost sales is presentation.
The way a specific product is presented can have an enormous effect on how the product is perceived and who buys it.
An example Dr. Munoz-Najar offers is how herbal supplements have been lumped in with the ‘handcrafted’ aesthetic of the natural foods trend of the 21st century.
“Since the dietary supplement industry emerged from the natural foods industry, there is a perception that natural and handcrafted is always superior. But what truly elevates supplements to be most effective is well-conducted research, consistent dose and the proper active ingredient, advanced processing and manufacturing technology, and stringent and consistent quality control.”
So, for an herbal extract, for example, it is perhaps less important that it is organic and handcrafted than knowing that the active ingredient is at the right dose consistently and that the product is pure and of consistent quality.
So, don’t be afraid to take your time and closely examine the contents of each product, especially if you’re shopping online. Don’t be intimidated: do some research on the ingredients and their recommended forms and dosages. You can quickly become better informed.
Key takeaways for consumers
Before we wrap up, let’s summarize what we’ve learned here.
According to Dr. Munoz-Najar, here’s what you should try to remember when you’re shopping in-person or online for nutritional supplements that are going to work for you:
“Try to use nutritional supplements that have been clinically studied. Clinically studied products or ingredients are usually highlighted in the label. Proactive research, accurate information, and open discussions with your physician are key to making the best decisions when choosing the supplements that are right for you.”
Speaking with your physician is especially important, in particular for anyone who has any kind of pre-existing health conditions. Even nutritional supplements that have been backed by verifiable scientific evidence and clinical research may still not be the best for you and your health. It can also depend on your lifestyle, your overall health, and the medications you take on a regular basis.
All of us can contribute to a healthier tomorrow by being more responsible with our buying habits today. When more companies become convinced that they need to assure that dosages of active ingredients in their products and the health claims on the packages are supported by solid clinical research, it will benefit us all.