How religious fervor and anti-regulatory fanaticism laid the foundation for America’s $ 36 billion supplement industry



Spend time watching TV or browsing social media, and you’ll inevitably see ads for pills, powders, and potions that promise to build muscle, lose body fat, improve your focus, and improve your focus. resuscitate your youth.

Most of us have used them. At last count, the National Center for Health Statistics found that over 50% of all adults in America have used a supplement in the past 30 days. The center used data from 2017 and 2018, but more recent polls suggest that figure is closer to more than 70%.

Globally, the nutritional supplement industry is estimated to be worth over US $ 140 billion in 2020. In the US alone, that figure is estimated to be around US $ 36 billion – despite evidence that the majority of these supplements do not work.

How did products with questionable benefits and high prices become so common? Food supplements are not a new phenomenon. Their history dates back at least 150 years, and they were able to thrive in the United States thanks to false promises, fanatic followers, and weak regulation.

Create an appetite for alternatives

Given the far-fetched claims that can adorn supplement labels, it may not be surprising that some of the early supplement enthusiasts were religious figures. Their supplements weren’t pills, but rather food alternatives.

Sylvester Graham, born in 1794, was an American Presbyterian minister who preached salvation through a vegetarian diet.

Part of Graham’s teaching centered on temperance and whole grain foods. Graham’s followers made and marketed graham bread, crackers, and flour with the promise that these products would promote righteous life and everlasting salvation.

Although Graham did not officially endorse these products, his spiritual successor, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, was a strong supporter of his family’s line of novel foods. Part physician, inventor and businessman, Kellogg ran his own spa in Michigan, the Battle Creek Sanitarium, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although he didn’t create cornflakes – it was his brother Will – Kellogg was responsible for marketing flours, protein substitutes, granola, and peanut butters. Like Graham’s products, Kellogg’s foods were linked to better health and virtue.

Graham crackers and granola may seem relatively harmless compared to some health and wellness products sold today, such as detox teas and vitamin fortified waters. But they were important nonetheless in promoting the still powerful message behind most of the supplements we see today: This product will improve your health and your life.

Fitness supplements are all the rage

In teaching this topic to students, I relate a discovery made by historians John Fair and Daniel Hall when they were researching the history of protein powders.

In the 1940s, American nutritionist Paul Bragg contacted barbell maker Bob Hoffman.

At the time, Hoffman was making a small fortune selling his York Barbell training equipment across the United States. Bragg, meanwhile, had firmly established himself as a leading expert in alternative nutrition. Sensing a potentially lucrative partnership, Bragg wrote to Hoffman with an idea.

In the letter, Bragg explained to Hoffman the fundamental flaw in his York business: its products were durable. If someone bought a set of dumbbells in the 1930s, it was likely they could still use it in the 1950s. Bragg recommended selling nutritional supplements, which should be replaced every two weeks or every two weeks. the months.

Hoffman decided to forgo his partnership with Bragg, but he quickly recognized the potential of the idea. In the 1950s, nutritionist and bodybuilding trainer Irving Johnson began selling protein supplements in Hoffman’s Strength & Health magazine. Made from soybeans, Johnson’s “Hi Protein” powder has been a huge success.

Within a year, Hoffman banned Johnson from his magazine and started selling his own “Hi-Proteen” powder. Protein supplements, as an industry, have grown in size and scope. Soy protein products were eventually replaced by milk protein powders in the 1960s. By the late 1990s, several other derivatives, ranging from pea protein to collagen powders, existed.

The size and reach of other offerings has grown over time. Vitamin and mineral supplements became popular in the 1950s. Energy drinks and energy boosters like creatine started hitting the shelves in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Prohormones – which claimed to build muscle and were eventually banned – were introduced in the early 2000s. With each decade the profits skyrocketed, as did the creativity in branding products.

Wacky promises were commonplace. Vitamin producers promised anticancer products, protein powders advertised steroid-like effects, while pre-workout supplements – often paired with methamphetamines – offered unlimited energy.

The government authorities did little to stop them.

The failing FDA

It wasn’t for lack of trying. The supplement industry and federal authorities have long played cat and mouse.

When Hoffman and others started selling supplements, they were technically subject to the policies of the Food and Drug Administration. But during the 1950s, the FDA was ill-equipped to regulate nutritional supplements. However, some of the far-fetched claims and unsanitary practices of the manufacturers began to gain the attention of the regulator, which quickly sought more scrutiny.

In the 1960s, Hoffman – who routinely claimed his products added pounds of muscle in record time – became an FDA target. The secret of its Hi-Proteen powder? A large mixing tub in which he mixed Hershey chocolate powder with soy protein powder using a ream.

Hoffman was regularly censored but never stopped. During the 1960s and 1970s, the FDA regularly opposed manufacturers for their lax production methods and disbelieving claims.

The problem was that the FDA was never able to fully regulate the industry.

From 1968 to 1970, Congress held several public hearings on the FDA’s plans to regulate supplements. Lawmakers, supplement trade associations, manufacturers and citizens have discussed restrictions and bans on certain products, for example by making it illegal to sell supplements that contain more than 150% recommended nutrients.

Public and private outcry halted such plans in their tracks. The FDA was forced to engage in light regulation. In 1975, a court ruling allowed supplements to present themselves as natural. A year later, the Rogers Proxmire Act banned the FDA from placing limits on the amounts of vitamins and minerals in supplements.

The FDA has retained the right to pursue baseless or misleading claims, but it has done little to slow the industry down. The number of products continued to grow.

Simply put, it became impossible to monitor what was going on in the products. It also explains why so many supplements include a note stating that they are not approved or approved by the FDA.

In the early 1990s, the FDA resumed its efforts to regulate the supplement industry. In particular, the agency wanted to increase its own enforcement powers while making it illegal to advertise therapeutic claims on supplement labels. Once again, private lobbying and public outcry watered down the agency’s powers.

In 1994, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health Education Act, which completely changed the nutritional landscape. Supplements were now classified as food, not drugs or food additives. By classifying supplements as food and not as drugs, the law has lowered the burden of proof for manufacturer claims.

The legislation has also extended the products that can be classified as supplements and, therefore, not subject to the jurisdiction of the FDA.

Today, the onus is on producers to self-regulate their potentially harmful products. This exposes producers to legal action, but it can be a long and lengthy process for consumers. This is because supplements are put on the market before they are thoroughly tested. Thus, many products are sold while they contain prohibited substances.

One promise wrapped in a pill

Since the mid-20th century, nutritional supplements have been promoted in various ways in the United States. But recognizing the differences in product, taste and price, they have generally been marketed on the basis of one promise: this product will, in some way, improve your life.

Whether or not this is true for the individual product – some supplements work, in fact, creatine being an example – this has become problematic on a broader level. Federal agencies in the United States have continually been prevented from properly monitoring the market. Private lobbying and public outcry about the government wanting to “deprive you of your vitamins” has encouraged malpractice and dangerous messages.

A 2018 study found 776 cases of unapproved pharmaceutical ingredients added to supplements in the United States from 2007 to 2016. Many of these additions were relatively harmless. But several ingredients – from steroid compounds to banned weight loss drugs – weren’t.

The supplements could promise a lot. But in reality, most of them are articles of faith.

Conor Heffernan is an Assistant Professor of Physical Culture and Sports Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He wrote this for The Conversation.



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