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Jennifer Grebow is editor-in-chief of Nutritional Outlook.
The U.S. dietary supplement industry can and should increase diversity both within industry and in consumer outreach, said panelists at the Council for Responsible Nutrition’s “NOW, NEW, NEXT” conference.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s toll on minority communities in the U.S. has made starkly clear yet again how, when it comes to wellness and health, minority communities remain significantly disadvantaged. Health disparities are a pervasive problem in this country, disproportionately favoring white communities and disfavoring other racial and ethnic groups, especially black and brown communities. The dietary supplement industry could play an active role in addressing these gaps. Unfortunately, the industry isn’t.
During an October 15 panel session on diversity during the Council for Responsible Nutrition’s (CRN; Washington, DC) virtual “NOW, NEW, NEXT” conference, panelists discussed how diversity is still significantly lacking both within the companies who make and sell dietary supplements as well as in how these companies and their products reach and connect with consumers.
During the session, moderator Sandy Almendarez, content director at Informa, pointed to a benchmarking survey that Informa/New Hope Network conducted with J.E.D.I Collaborative in late 2019. J.E.D.I Collaborative is an organization formed last year to address diversity in the natural products industry. The survey found that whites make up the majority of both natural product consumers and leadership at natural product companies. Industry leadership also skews heavily male. Black professionals command only 2% of leadership seats at U.S. natural product industry companies and company boards, the survey noted. Latinx professionals represented only 2% of company board positions and 6% of company leadership roles.1
Without building diversity into leadership, and without ensuring there is diverse representation throughout companies, from junior to senior level, natural product firms lack the voices and perspectives to help them reach minorities who will increasingly come to represent an important part of their business. In short, they are unable to market to these consumers because they don’t adequately understand their needs.
“You need to talk to us and understand our habits and attitudes and vernacular…you have to talk to the population that you’re marketing to in order to deliver those insights that are going to land authentically,” said panelist Michele Muhammad, chief sales and marketing officer for DSE Healthcare. She also pointed out that including more minority subjects in dietary supplement clinical studies is important, “because if we’re going to take products from this industry, you want to know that it’s been tested on the population like you.” Panelists also emphasized that diversity should be audited along the supply chain, factoring into the decision of who companies choose to do business with.
Natural products firms must be more inclusive when advertising their products. This includes “casting in ads,” Muhammad said. “We want to see ourselves in the advertising about vitamins and supplements to make sure there is representation so that we can have an authentic connection.”
Panelist Marc Washington, founder and CEO of Uplifting Results Labs, agreed, adding, “[I]f you don’t see anyone who you feel connects with you or looks like you, then in your mind you just naturally get the feeling that maybe this isn’t for me.”
Besides the fact that diversity is the right thing to do, bringing diversity into your company’s DNA makes business sense, the panelists said. Minorities are projected to account for more than half of the total U.S. population by 2044; by 2060, nearly one in five people in the U.S. are expected to be foreign born, per the U.S. Census Bureau.2 These are the consumers whom natural product companies will increasingly come to rely on and should be including now.
Dietary supplements have an important role to play in ensuring health equity, and all those within the industry should take intentional actions to help close the gap, the panelists pointed out. U.S. minorities continue to suffer health inequities, experiencing a higher incidence of many diseases while being disadvantaged within the healthcare system.3 “When you look at the population and who needs our products the most when it comes to health and wellness, you can literally look down every single preexisting condition, and they disproportionately affect minority communities,” Washington said.
If the industry’s mission is to increase the health and wellness of all consumers, companies must take actions to make sure that minority consumers most in need of health support can realistically access these products.
One of the many factors to consider, for instance, is whether or not minority consumers who are already economically disadvantaged can afford the price of dietary supplements, Almendarez and the panelists said. Guest speaker Vernice Armour, the first African American female combat pilot in the U.S., said, “The disposable income is tremendously different [between whites and minorities], and when you’re looking at paying bills and buying groceries and then supplements and organic things on top of that, again, that’s a huge disparity.”
The dietary supplement industry has a long way to go in improving diversity, but the reasons for doing so are undeniable. It will take more than the actions of an industry, certainly, to close the health equity gap in the U.S. But, the industry can take steps, on many fronts, to set itself on the path of diversity—and, in the process, strengthen its business all around.
“[Diversity] is not just the right thing to do,” Washington said. “It is from a social standpoint of overcoming injustices, but it is the best business thing to do as well. The business case has been tried and closed so many times over—the benefits of diverse perspectives, representation, sexual orientation, racial diversity…By having broader diversity and representation, we can fulfill that mission of helping people live healthier lives at the same time. The business space has been proven. This is better for your bottom line."