Vitamin Retailer reflects on the impact, challenges and evolution of the dietary supplement and natural products industry since the magazine’s inception.
In 1994, “Forrest Gump” won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Ace of Base’s “The Sign” topped the billboard charts, and “Friends” and “ER” made their television debuts.
Also of note that year: health care costs were projected to approach $940 million, and a young editor named Dan McSweeney decided to branch out on his own and start a magazine called Vitamin Retailer.
In the inaugural issue of the new publication, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), sponsor of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) bills S. 784 and H.R. 1709, told McSweeney:
“Since there’s no higher item on the public health agenda right now than good health… it’s important that we made a case for the dietary supplement industry, which I think does a great deal of good in our society. Supplements keep people healthy.”
Sen. Hatch went on to note the solid science that was surfacing at the time about the efficacy of vitamin E and its ability to reduce cardiovascular disease and difficulties, Linus Pauling’s work with vitamin C, and folic acid being proven to help prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida.
At the time of the interview, November 30, 1993, DSHEA had hit its Roadblocks getting passed—namely Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA). As negotiations were underway to see if an agreement could be reached, the industry waited on bated breath to see if 1994 would in fact be the year this landmark legislation would be passed.
Sen. Hatch stressed a number of items on which he would not waiver. First being the burden of proof, which he wanted to be on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). There were three very difficult issues that had to be addressed: safety, claims and manufacturing practices. Ultimately, he explained, “what we want the end result to be is to allow people in the [natural Products] business to be able to continue to make the quality products they’re making and continue to be able to do the good that they’re doing for people.”
The efforts of Sen. Hatch and the various other sponsors and supporters, such as Rep. Bill Richardson (D-NM) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), who was key in bridging the gap between Hatch and Kennedy, were rewarded when President Bill Clinton signed S. 784, DSHEA, into law on October 25, 1994.
Legitimizing an Industry
It was the growth and success of the dietary supplement industry in the 1980s and early 1990s that led to the creation of DSHEA. Since its passage, there has been continued, steady growth due to the strong consumer demand for access to herbal products and supplements. But one of the biggest differences from the pre-DSHEA time period is that the law really helped legitimize the dietary supplement industry in the minds of many consumers, as it set down specific rules and regulations that manufacturers had to follow in order to be in compliance with DSHEA.
That legitimacy was only strengthened by the passage of the Serious Adverse Event Reporting (AER) law in 2006 and the release of final regulations for good manufacturing practices (GMPs) in June 2007 (fully into effect 2010) . Steve Mister, president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), calls the AER law a “watershed event” because it was the one thing missing from DSHEA. “AER passage brought post-market surveillance to both supplements and OTC drugs,” he said. “Defending supplements requires reporting these things, and the FDA has used these reports in a number of cases—from the Hydroxycut recall to DMAA and caffeine.”
Meanwhile, it has been said that GMPs have and will continue to change the face of the industry, weeding out companies that can’t bring their operations up to code, or forcing them to be strictly marketers as they employ contract manufacturers to create their products.
“The overall stellar safety track record of the dietary supplement industry—far safer than our food and pharmaceutical counterparts—was clearly confirmed after AERs became a mandatory practice in our industry several years ago,” said Bob Barrows Jr., vice president of sales & marketing of Texas-based Bluebonnet Nutrition. “And the industry has become even safer after the release of the long-awaited cGMP guidelines a few years ago, evening the playing field so that now all manufacturers of dietary supplements must follow strict inprocess testing procedures throughout manufacturing and packaging.”
“After DSHEA was passed, the industry underwent a time of rapid growth, with FDA doing little to implement the law,” said Dan Richard, national sales manager with Illinois-based NOW Foods, supplement manufacturer founded by Elwood Richard in 1968. “With so many new players, it was inevitable that quality assurance procedures by some would be better than others. Many of those companies that could be described as the responsible core of the industry had already gotten third-party GMP certification.” Richard noted that NOW was one of the first to do so, having first received GMP certification by the National Nutritional Foods Association (NNFA), now the Natural Products Association (NPA), in 2000. “As the GMPs kicked in over a three-year period, many companies weren’t prepared, and had to spend enormous amounts of time and money to catch up.”
“This has been particularly beneficial to companies like Bluebonnet who have been manufacturing to these high standards since our inception in 1991, and no longer have to compete with other dietary supplement manufacturers or brands who have cut corners on quality in order to make a less expensive product,” Barrows added.
DSHEA sent the dietary supplement industry into a whirlwind evolution. What is now a $30 billion industry, with herbs at more than $5.5 billion, not only have products and manufacturing grown leaps and bounds since its passage, so have the consumer base for these products and the retail environment, due in great part to the emergence of the internet (as DSHEA was passed before the advent and general acceptance of the worldwide web).
20 Years of Growth
From a product perspective, one area that has shown tremendous growth and shows no signs of slowing is the category of personalized nutrition. This retreat From the one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition to embrace the unique needs of individuals is credited heavily to an increased attention on quality science supporting products, driven by DSHEA.
Tom Bohager, chairman and founder of Florida-based Enzymedica, which celebrated its 15th anniversary in September of 2013, offered the enzyme category as a clear illustration of the industry’s science-driven product evolution. ”Twenty years ago, there were only a small number of enzyme products that, by today’s standards, contained very low potencies. Now, the choices are almost overwhelming,” he said. “The consumers of nutritional products are much better educated about the benefits of enzymes, and with the recent surge in probiotic use, we expect this market will grow at even a greater rate than we have seen in the past.”
Other noticeable strides have been in taste and delivery, observed Lou Paradise, president and chief of research of New York-based Topical BioMedics, Inc., makers of Topricin. “Quality product manufacturers have made significant headway and impact on the general population, including addressing the issues of gluten and other food allergies,” he said.
“The true innovators in the industry have provided healthy choices that are good for you and taste great.” This, according to Andreas Koch, marketing director with Barlean’s in Washington, has led to a larger mass population opening up to natural products. “Omega-3 nutrition, for example, has always been one of the most important categories in the entire health and Wellness industry. But in the last five years, three major improvements have helped boost sales and reach a larger population: better absorption, taste experience (thanks to developments with and adoption of natural sweetener alternatives) and a wider variety of omega-3 sources,” he said.
The noticeable product improvements are credited to an emphasis on research, which has transformed the dietary supplement industry as a whole. But it is also the cost of doing business under DSHEA, according to NPA CEO and Executive Director John Shaw.
“Research is imperative to the industry, both in maintaining compliance with the NDI (new dietary ingredient) notification provision and providing appropriate background for structure/function claims,” he said. “Additionally, having a solid scientific basis for products is necessary when consumers—and mass media—are asking questions. The products that have the solid science backing them have the basis for safety and efficacy.”
Illinois-based Carlson Laboratories is one example of a company whose foundation was built on science—only producing and selling products backed by scientific research, according to President Carilyn Anderson. “It is interesting to see how so many consumers have educated themselves on the importance of this and come to expect it from [the industry],” she said. “Although it was something we were doing for years prior, it is now required to have research-backed studies in order to make structure/function claims.”
And the impact of this intensified research has been noticeable—and eagerly welcomed—by retailers. Starkie Sowers, director of education with three-store Clark’s Nutrition & Natural Foods Market based in Riverside, CA, who grew up in the natural products industry, expressed how absolutely floored he’s been by the work produced by the industry.
“Science had been a part of the industry for years, but DSHEA really invigorated people. They began producing larger amounts of studies— everything shifted from the testimonial to what the science actually says,” he said. “Just looking at the pioneering work of individuals like Dr. Jeffrey Bland, dosing, safety and usage became more understood.”
When the rest of the nation wrestled with the recent economic downturn, the dietary supplement and natural products industry shined through, said Carlson’s Anderson. As many people experienced loss of income and, in many cases, loss of or limited insurance coverage, it led them to seek out less expensive, natural alternatives as a way to get and stay healthy, she noted.
This change in perception is evident to retailers like Trent Hurley, second-generation owner of No Name Nutrition Market West, which has been serving Omaha, NE with two stores since 1976; and Ed Jones, president of Nutrition World in Chattanooga, TN, who has owned and operated the single store since 1979.
“I think the biggest impact has been the opening of the eyes of the average consumer. People realize that doctors are not gods and there are other alternatives to a lot of the surgeries and prescription medications,” said Hurley. “As long as consumers can continue to purchase supplements and good whole foods, I think there is hope for our continued health and wellness.”
Jones recalled that in the 1980s, many customers were less trusting of the information his store offered in regard to nutritional supplements and health. “One reason was the public’s absolute faith that their doctors were the only source of health information,” he said. “Today, the informed health care professional cannot ignore the wave of research, acceptance and use of nutrition in health.”
Enzymedica’s Bohager said he has seen first hand the difference natural products have made to the population through his company’s support of Autism Hope Alliance. “Currently one in 88 children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Most suffer from digestive distress and are in need of healthy specialty foods because they have numerous food intolerances,” he said. “Besides enzymes and probiotics, nutritional supplements such as antioxidants, EFAs and vitamins can have a profound effect on these children and many like them.”
But Jarrow L. Rogovin, president and chairman of the board of Californiabased Jarrow Formulas, a supplement Company that began in 1977 and was incorporated almost a decade later, is quick to note that this industry’s mission is far from over. “We have impacted the nation, but only a fraction of it. [Supplement takers] are a rather elite, educated group. [It’s] a huge country and we have a long way to go if we are really going to educate ‘the public,’” he said. “Within our customer base, we have helped many people, but we have a lot of uncovered ground. If we actually do our homework—protect our political and economic rights and undertake clinical trials— we can become 10-times bigger than we are.”
And while supplements and natural products have had a tremendous impact on the population’s health with its affordable, preventative strategies, one cannot ignore the economic impact the industry has had on the nation.
“The industry has been at the forefront of the movement to improve the health and well-being of U.S. citizens. At the same time, the industry has significantly contributed to the U.S. economy by producing more jobs and creating taxable revenue,” said Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA). “Moving forward, there is every indication that the industry will continue to grow and contribute to the health and success of U.S. citizens and the U.S. economy,” he added.
While the threat of over regulation is always on the horizon for the dietary supplement industry, one of the primary challenges that has plagued it is bad press. It’s a substantial concern for Nutrition World’s Jones as he eyes the future.
“Looking forward to 2014, this industry is certainly always focused on upcoming legislation of which we must be constantly vigilant in order to preserve our freedoms to offer our products. But my concerns continue to grow in regard to the apathy of so many nutrition companies that refuse to participate in countering so much negative press that is presented in the media,” he said. “The NRA has proved that being organized as a single unit to counter each and every attack is possible, but only if companies unite and quit running scared of participating in the battle.”
“The principal challenge facing this industry is the misconception perpetuated by the media that it is not regulated,” said Bluebonnet’s Barrows. “Unfortunately, this perception is often strengthened by unscrupulous players who intentionally adulterate or spike their products with prescription ingredients, or when companies don’t follow the cGMP guidelines. To counter this onslaught of negative stories, we need to be pushing a positive agenda and bombarding the media with success stories about the benefits of dietary supplements, how they help to reduce medical costs and the positive influence they have on maintaining health and preventing disease.”
When it comes to bad press and increased regulation, NPA’s Shaw expressed that it’s hard to decipher Which comes first, but they both play heavily into one another.
“From a legislative/regulatory perspective, the dietary supplement industry is quite young, but its continued growth in light of the recession and new regulations is a testament to its prosperity. However, the industry continues to struggle with mainstream media pressures stemming from negative articles and challenges of Congress,” he said. “Most legislation that deals with this industry is based on media articles that aren’t always accurate. We continually educate new members of Congress and their staff as to the regulatory role and oversight of FDA that DSHEA provides.”
As NOW Foods’ Richards explained that the industry must meet the recurring challenge of more stringent regulation by utilizing advocacy, quality, integrity and communication, Barlean’s Koch offered one thing that can stonewall naysayers and those trying to push a prohibitive regulatory agenda:
“Stacking up more research building blocks creates a higher wall for regulatory bodies to try and leap over and challenge,” he said. “As more research is published, this further supports natural product supplementation to a wider population. In turn, sales momentum will continue to shift from pharmaceuticals to nutraceuticals.”
When science is the primary weapon in the industry’s arsenal, it only increases the importance of education and the role of retailers, particularly when conflicting studies emerge and spread through the media.
It’s a role that Linda Burger, owner of The Well in Bedford, VA, who opened her first physical store in 2002 but has been serving the industry since 1995; and Keri Blanchard, owner of Healthy Ways, a single store serving Lodi, CA residents for more than 21 years, view as a privileged responsibility.
“New research has had a tremendous impact on understanding not only wellness issues, but the whole body system,” said Burger. “As we learn new information Through monitoring legitimate studies, we are able to serve our customers better.”
“Our biggest goal should be to continue to educate the consumer,” added Blanchard. “A lot of them just don’t know about how supplements can help, how eating healthily can change how they feel. What we can offer consumers is the ability to take control of their own health with the education they receive at their local health food store.”
But education is one area where Blanchard hopes her supplier partners make a priority to offer more assistance.
“It is so important that we have the education and training so we can help consumers make the best decisions for their health needs,” she said. “I feel our companies need to educate and train the staff in stores that are selling their products. The more educated we are, the more we can sell.”
Today’s retail environment is almost unrecognizable to the specialty stores that built the foundation of this industry more than two decades ago. Jarrow’s Rogovin made the observation that large, corporate chains, as well as competition from the mass market and the internet are eliminating smaller shops as the mainstreaming of the industry has picked up speed. And consumers are paying the price as these channels are more centered on sales than service.
It’s a legitimate worry for single-store operators like Jane Thomas, AAS, MH, CR, CWC, owner of JB’s Health Mart in West Plains, MO, which she purchased in 2009, but has been in continuous operation since 1994. “I am concerned about independent stores being swallowed up by corporate models. Products once exclusive to my kind of store are now being mass marketed. Initially the consumer appears to be winning the price war, but as stores fold, prices will go back up,” she said. “My best preparation is to continue offering superior customer service and meeting the everchanging demands of our customers.”
Indeed price is an issue for specialty retailers, but so is channel loyalty in this increasingly competitive market, as Warren Barbieri, co-owner of The Health Food Store, a two-store operation based in Pontotoc, MS that opened in 1991, described: “Many quality natural products manufacturers do not have MAP (minimum advertised price) pricing in place or do and do not enforce it. That has allowed many online retailers to offer ridiculously low pricing slightly above a natural brick-and-mortar store product cost.
The same goes for those manufactures who are now choosing to partner with the big box stores who lead with low prices only (and service/product support is not important),” he said. “We believe manufacturer/supplier partners can help our industry and the natural store retailer by putting in place MAP pricing to control the integrity of a product’s price point and, most of all, enforcing it.
“No one wins in the long run when the online retailers destroy a product’s price point in relationship to the manufacture’s suggested retail,” he added. “Further, we are sick and tired of being a store front and sales staff for internet companies.”
Which brings to light the most evident change in retail: the advent of the internet, and how we are connected to Everything with the touch of a button or a click of a mouse. While it has made for a more competitive market, is has also helped to cultivate a more aware consumer.
“Awareness is being raised due to the many ways we receive Information— Dr. Oz, the former Oprah show, the internet, television, social and print media. It is causing many people to inquire about ways to improve their health,” said Thomas. “When people begin to experience the spectrum of benefits from a holistic lifestyle, they Share their success stories with others, and begin to explore natural health even more. This stimulates the industry.”
It also makes for more informed retailers, according to Suellen Duga, vice president of single-store Choice Health in Westfield, MA, who established her first store, New Age Whole Food and Grain, in April 1988. “One of the most significant changes that has taken place is the way information is disseminated. There was a joke among us retailers here in the East in the 90s that it would take 10 years for any new product that originated in California to reach us,” she said. “What used to take days to travel from California to the East now takes a nano-second.”
The Retailer’s Role
The importance of a well-informed specialty retailer is only emphasized as consumer interest grows in natural products, said CRN’s Mister. “People have questions about what to take and why, what strength, etc. An online catalog or wandering the aisles of a super store is not going to give the types of answers those customers desperately need,” he said. “There is a lot of conflicting information out there. Retailers play a valueadded role by helping customers decipher between good and bad information, and having trained staff that can help explain the science.”
In addition, as product offerings have exploded, retailers recognize the prime real estate their shelf space affords, and have become more particular of the marketing support that manufacturers provide to promote sell-through to consumers. With the increased regulatory environment, NPA and CRN both strongly recommend that retailers continue carefully vetting suppliers, such as confirming they’re complying with GMPs.
Further, Mark Blumenthal, president of the American Botanical Council (ABC), added that retailers must keep abreast of the current literature on quality control problems in the industry—becoming more informed buyers and pushing back on their vendors in cases where there are publications about known adulterants. “All retailers should be asking their suppliers (especially contract manufacturers who supply a retailer with a private- label brand) for evidence and guarantees that the supplier has performed appropriate analytical tests for ‘known adulterants’ in the herbs that are known to be adulterated, such as skullcap, bilberry extract, black cohosh and socalled grapefruit seed extract,” he said, noting that the Botanical Adulterants Program is one place where retailers can freely access information on the adulteration of the herbs.
It’s a point supported by frequent industry speaker Debra Stark, president of Debra’s Natural Gourmet, which has been serving Concord, MA residents for 24 years. “As lab testing becomes more sophisticated and our customers become more informed, we’re all going to have to keep raising the bar, making sure there are no contaminants, that our raw materials are squeaky clean,” she said.
“Retailers are going to have to keep asking questions and thinking about the answers, not just accepting sales-speak.” Beyond assuring products are safe, in order to survive in an increasingly competitive market, Ben Henderson, vice president and general manager of Bare Essentials Natural Market, a single store in Boone, NC that celebrated its 25th anniversary in June 2013, implored his retailer brethren to shift their passions.
“We have succeeded in that more of the public has adopted our message, but the mass market has noticed. Now we need to become business people to survive,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll lead the charge against GMOs (genetically modified organisms). We’ll strengthen independent natural products retailers who are the backbone of our industry through organizations like the Independent Natural Food Retailers Association, which is rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with in our industry.
“We cannot sit still or rest on our laurels,” he added. “We have to become better business people—to apply the passion we have for the products and concepts that drew us to this industry to the business side.”
In conclusion, Clark Nutrition’s Sowers offered this piece of advice as the nation continues to embrace better habits and lifestyles, and awareness grows that we are all, in fact, responsible for our own health: “If we strategize ourselves properly and we stick to science as solid as we can and let the science speak for product development, as an industry, we can satisfy what I believe is a large demand for health care support.”
Vitamin Retailer reflects on the impact, challenges and evolution of the dietary supplement and natural products industry since the magazine’s inception.
An Industry Mobilized: Blackout Day Remembered
In April 1993, Dietary Supplement Health & Education Acts of 1993 (S. 784 and H.R. 1709) were introduced by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Representative Bill Richardson (D-NM), and faced considerable opposition. In an effort to mobilize the industry in support, the National Nutritional Foods Association (NNFA) distributed Blackout Day “kits” to supplement retailers in July 1993, explaining that on August 13, 1993, retailers nationwide should refuse to sell some dietary supplements entirely or by marketing them with “black dots, crepe-paper, black ribbons or any other means.”
“The only realistic hope for preserving not only our businesses, but also our way of life … is to use creative and decisive action to ensure the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health & Education Acts (S. 784 and H.R. 1709) by October,” materials in the Blackout Day kit stated.
The “blackout” mobilized consumer support for the Hatch/Richardson bills by widely disseminating the industry’s message that many products that consumers regularly purchase— such as certain amino acids, herbals, enzymes and single- ingredient oils (including evening primrose extract)— would no longer be available if FDA’s dietary supplement proposal was effected. The Blackout Day also served as a means To publicize letter-writing and media campaigns through retailers. Included in the blackout kit were suggestions to retailers for setting up store displays and “legislative action tables,” as well as “general themes” and “talking points” to respond to local media coverage of the event.
Starkie Sowers, director of education with three-store Clark’s Nutrition & Natural Foods Market based in Riverside, CA, recalled how the event highlighted the staggering commitment of the industry and its customers. “You have to remember, this was a pre-e-mail moment, so mobilizing stores was imperative. The passion for these products was evident, as we sought to gather a million signatures,” he said. “We explained to our customers, ‘Here’s the deal: we’ve got important legislation on hand. If it’s passed, these products won’t be available any longer.’”
Clark’s Nutrition, like many other retailers across the country, didn’t sell any of the designated products on August 13, but told customers they could come back the next day when the demonstration was over. “Some people weren’t happy about it, but most stepped up ready to sign up in support,” added Sowers, noting that the DSHEA article had more signatures presented than during the whole era of the Vietnam War.
Retailers’ Views on Vitamin Retailer
“I think the personalized articles of other family-owned, brick-andmortar stores sets Vitamin Retailer apart from other magazines. About a year ago, Vitamin Retailer ran an article covering a family-owned business in another state. It was an excellent article and we ended up using some of the advice from that owner and incorporated it into our own business. It has helped tremendously! I also love the in-depth articles and education I get from every issue—keep them coming!” — No Name Nutrition’s Trent Hurley
“I am drawn to Vitamin Retailer in particular for its focus, as its name suggests, on the people behind the retail operation. I like the ‘personal’ feel—it provides the sense that it’s addressed to me and my business. I’ve picked up some great ideas from other store owners around the country about how they handle certain decisions, and have added many new products after finding them in the magazine.” — The Well’s Linda Burger
“When I go to a trade show, I may pick up 10 new small ideas and go back and implement four of them. But those four ideas improve my business. I read Vitamin Retailer with that same philosophy. I learn about new products, how other retailers are dealing with similar challenges, and how to more effectively market what we have here. Keep doing what you’ve been doing for the past 20 years: keeping a geographically dispersed and diverse collection of businesses informed on important issues.” — Bare Essentials Natural Market’s Ben Henderson
“We find it useful reading articles about other businesses similar to ours and about product manufacturing issues, as well as spotlighting new products. I like to read the scientific information to expand my knowledge— any education we can pass onto our staff and customers is a win-win situation.” — JB’s Health Mart’s Jane Thomas