Consumers are seeking ways to stay healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many are buying dietary supplements to support their health, especially their immune health. With many supplement companies now ramping up immune health benefit claims about their products or ingredients, consumers are unfortunately at more risk today than ever of being misled by false information about supplements and their ability to support immune health.
Nutritional Outlook hosted a webcast on May 29 on this topic, titled “COVID-19 and Immune Health Claims: What Not to Say (Do’s and Don’ts).” The webcast’s first speaker, pharmacist and author David Foreman, known as “The Herbal Pharmacist,” discussed how consumers are vulnerable to deceiving immune-health product information. Foreman’s experience includes advising not only consumers in his role as a pharmacist but also companies in the nutraceutical industry as a consultant.
First off, consumers are often misled by what they hear “through the grapevine,” Foreman said. As a pharmacist, he said, “what I ended up finding out is that a lot of people take things just because they heard it’s good for them. The other day, I had somebody who is in our industry, well-respected, who said something about taking zinc capsules, taking 50 mg per day. I said zinc capsules are really no good for this right now. The way zinc really works for immune health is when you have a lozenge in your mouth, because it affects the viral spread in the more topical area, the mucus membrane. So, if you’re just swallowing zinc, it has significantly less effect. So, again, heard it through the grapevine at all levels.”
Consumers are vulnerable to misleading information because of their “lack of knowledge,” Foreman said. “The average consumer doesn’t know if an ingredient is or is not really for immune health. They don’t necessarily know. They’re trusting us or whoever is putting out that finished product.”
Dietary supplement companies bear responsibility for ensuring that consumers are getting accurate product information about the products they’re buying. For instance, ideally companies should explain how quickly a product will work. “How long does it take to work? How long should it be taken?” Foreman asked. “The other day, someone approached me in the industry about a nutritional ingredient, and I said, ‘If I am starting to feel something, I’m starting to come down with a cold or a flu, that ingredient is not going to help me today. I need something that’s going to stimulate my immune system and fire it up, not support it.’ Ingredients that support [immune health] usually start working [after] three days minimum, so those are key things consumers need to be aware of.”
“Pixie dusting”—including a small, ineffective dose of an ingredient in a product just to claim that the product contains the ingredient—is deceptive and unethical. Foreman showed the example of an omega-3 product being advertised as “now containing additional vitamin C for immune support.” The 20 mg of vitamin C in the product is far from an efficacious dose, Foreman pointed out. “Adding that little whiff of vitamin C is very deceptive. At the end of the day, it’s harmful to the consumer, and they’re not going to get the results that they are seeking.”
Dosing regimens also determine how effective a product will be, something that companies should ensure consumers understand, he said. He pointed to the example of another vitamin C product. “That product actually does have a high dose of vitamin C. It’s a little over 1000 mg, but it says to take one a day. We know in science that a therapeutic dose of vitamin C, 1000 mg, is barely going to pump your immune system. If someone really wants to take this to fire up their immune system, they’re going to need to take probably two of these, at two doses, at the same time, and they’re going to have to repeat it throughout the day because that type of immune stimulation maybe lasts 6 to 12 hours.”
Another deceptive practice is exaggerating the relationship of a supplement product and the immune system—for instance, suggesting that a supplement has more of a direct impact on the immune system than it really does. Asked Foreman: “What type of immune system support does it really give? Because a lot of immune support could be reducing inflammatory cytokines, which means it’s going to help my joint health, but it’s not the type of immune support that I need to help boost my immune system, which is what people are looking at doing—supporting their immune system overall so that they don’t get sick from coronavirus or any other bacteria or viral infection out there.”
Unfortunately, he said, “there are products out there on the market right now…where the labeling or the advertising says it’s immune support when really it’s not.” One example he gave is CBD. “CBD has no direct connection to immune health whatsoever,” he said, although people might try to infer it does because it could support sleep or stress relief. Another example he pointed to is omega-3 fish oil. He highlighted a company’s product listing on Amazon.com. “They’ve changed their ad on Amazon, so the first thing it says is ‘Immune and Heart Support.’ Omega-3s have really no effect on the part of the immune system that we want when we’re talking about colds, flu, and bacteria. Zero. It’s more of on that inflammatory effect that the immune system has. So, for me, is it a true statement? Yes, it’s immune support, but it’s not the type of immune support that I think people really understand.”
Everyone in the industry should be concerned about misinformation consumers might glean during the pandemic when simply shopping for products. Foreman demonstrated how a search for “COVID-19 supplements” on Amazon.com gives users search results for a number of dietary supplement products. And while some of those supplements are legitimate immune-support products, Foreman said, the fact that these supplements show up when consumers search for COVID-19 remedies is still deceiving the lay consumer who might believe, based on such search results, that supplements can treat or prevent COVID-19. “People that may take these supplements because they saw that, ‘Hey, it showed up on my Amazon search.’ They might take these things expecting to get a benefit, be more reckless with their health, not wear a mask, not wash their hands as much, maybe not use hand sanitizers, etc., and end up becoming ill,” he pointed out.
“These are things that can really hurt the consumer at the end of the day,” Foreman said. “When I see companies in our industry doing very misleading things to the consumer—at the end of the day, we’re a natural health industry, health being very important, and for us to provide false or misleading information, in whatever form, ends up hurting the end consumer’s health, and so that makes us not really a natural health industry; it makes us a natural harm industry.”
Especially during this public health crisis, supplement companies should ensure that they are conveying correct information to their customers and not exaggerating product claims. To do anything less would be irresponsible and unethical.
If you missed our webcast, which also discussed which immune health claims marketers should or should not make in order to remain compliant with federal regulators, including the FDA and FTC, you can still watch it for free On Demand at https://www.nutritionaloutlook.com/no_s/covid19_immunehealth