Over the years, Americans have lost none of their interest in losing weight. Unfortunately, if Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data1 are to be believed, they haven’t lost much of their weight, either. Fully 78.6 million American adults—that’s more than a third of us—are obese, CDC says, costing the nation’s healthcare system an estimated $147 billion annually.
But one thing Americans do seem to be losing is their faith that some magic weight-loss pill can help them win this losing battle. Mintel’s “Diet Trends U.S. 2015” report2 found that 91% of Americans favor a well-rounded diet over weight-loss products for shedding pounds—a back-to-basics tilt that USDA merely reinforced with its 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which emphasize whole foods and healthy lifestyles over wacky weight-loss schemes.
And who knows? The shift in thinking may catch fire and launch a new era of weight management. If it works, the results would be a triumph for public health. But they’d also be a turning point for the supplement and functional foods industries. For if consumers lean increasingly toward “old-fashioned” approaches to weight management, where does that leave a sector whose purpose is to innovate products that manage weight?
The extent of consumers’ skepticism toward weight-management products is striking. According to Mintel2, sales of diet pills fell almost 20% in the year ending July 2015, which jibes with the report’s finding that consumers aren’t convinced such products are as healthy as they claim to be.
Both conclusions coincide with Chase Hagerman’s observations. “All too often,” says the brand director for Chemi Nutra (Austin, TX), “consumers’ wallets—not their excess fat—are what get burned by weight-loss products.” If that sounds surprising coming from the representative of a company that markets its own weight-management product, it shouldn’t, for Hagerman concedes that specious “magic-pill” promises still plague the category. But consumers are growing wise.
“At this point in the health-and-wellness sector,” Hagerman says, “consumers are more discerning, and with the rise of the Internet, their apprehension related to a topic can rise at the point of sale.” Though shoppers may know that diet and exercise are linchpins in their success, they also know that “a truly useless formulation,” as he puts it, is, well, truly useless. The result, invariably, is “consumer dissatisfaction and lower sales.”
In the Crosshairs
Mitch Skop, senior director, product development, Pharmachem Laboratories Inc. (Kearny, NJ), agrees. While stopping short of calling weight management a Wild West, he acknowledges that “as long as there are supplement cowboys out there promoting their foo-foo dusts and proprietary blends, there’ll be fraud, which hurts consumer confidence every time.”
Exaggerated claims from personalities like Dr. Mehmet Oz don’t help, either. “He had so much influence on how millions of Americans could lead healthier lives,” Skop reflects. But by overstating the efficacy of the products he touted, Oz and his ilk “attract negative media attention and give the whole industry a black eye.”
That black eye really got throbbing as the FTC, FDA, and states’ attorneys general began taking action against weight-management targets—like, for example, makers of the green coffee beans about which Oz was so bullish, who wound up facing an FTC lawsuit in 2015. And though the weight-management category has attracted “fringe players” and “bad actors” who generate unflattering headlines, admits Shaheen Majeed, marketing director, Sabinsa (East Windsor, NJ), he believes that FTC’s “concentrated education and enforcement program” against them “has had a positive effect in toning down claims like ‘eat pizza and lose weight while you sleep.’”
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- Haller C et al., “Dietary supplement adverse events: Report of a one-year poison center surveillance project,” Journal of Medical Toxicology, vol. 4, no. 2 (June 2008): 84-92
- Badmaev V et al., “Preclinical and clinical effects of Coleus forskohlii, Salacia reticulata and Sesamum indicum modifying pancreatic lipase inhibition in vitro and reducing total body fat,” Journal of Functional Foods, vol. 15 (May 2015): 44-51