To All the Doubters: We Told You So!

Written By:
Kaylynn Chiarello-Ebner
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How many times have you felt like standing on a mountaintop and shouting, “Natural supplements are not snake oil and they are regulated!!!”  Well, for all those times of frustration, fate may now be giving you a bit of vindication in an unlikely place: DMAA.

Sporting It
Sports nutrition is a huge category for the natural products industry. It accounts for thousands of SKUs on the market today, and new products are ever evolving to meet the needs of everyone from hardcore bodybuilders to weekend joggers.

I consider this segment a potential nutritional gateway for many young consumers. Perhaps you, too, have noticed high school and college shoppers tentatively lug home their first canister of protein powder—and likely their first experience with a non-Mom-bought/non-multi supplement—and return a week later to learn about other supplements in the category. And with new delivery forms, unique sources and better-tasting formulas, there’s a lot for shoppers to choose from these days. Indeed, this most recent surge of excitement inspired WholeFoods to dedicate its 2013 editorial series to covering all aspects of this important category, starting in this issue  and finishing in October.

As with many exploding categories, there is often the propensity to push the boundaries. Sometimes, this comes in the form of ingenious creativity and innovation. But unfortunately, when a segment is eyed by young shoppers and also consumers looking for quick results, the temptation is to push the legal limits of what a natural supplement should and can do. We have seen companies knowingly skirt boundaries, hoping to camouflage into the thick and changing landscape they are playing in—and that’s when the retailer must be keenly critical of products.

But this may not have been the case with DMAA. This ingredient was on the market for years before fairly recently being questioned for its ties to critical heart problems in users and for not really being naturally derived from geranium.

While some were convinced that DMAA had no place in dietary supplements, others were not. And so a year-long battle ensued about its safety and appropriateness on the supplements market. Warning letters were sent, and some companies pulled products, while others remained in the marketplace, instead choosing to defend DMAA’s legality. In the end, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told shoppers to avoid supplements with DMAA for safety reasons, and the last remaining DMAA hold-out took its formula off the market.

Two Lessons
The DMAA debate seems pretty straightforward, and that’s just the point. FDA has regulatory authority over the dietary supplements industry; it’s documented and the system in place works. Simply put, when products that may endanger the public are marketed, FDA can and does step in to address the issue. The DMAA situation is proof of that.

But there’s a second way to regulate, and that is to trust your instincts as natural products retailers. If a product seems too good to be true, it probably is. You’re the gatekeeper for your store, and your shoppers are counting on you to weed out any possible infiltrators into the safe and legal dietary supplements world. It doesn’t always validate a questionable product if other Internet or brick-and-mortar stores are selling it. Retailing isn’t about safety in numbers; it’s about knowing what’s right and selling products you truly feel good about—ones you’d use yourself or give a loved one. And that’s the unique beauty of independent retailing. WF

Kaylynn Chiarello-Ebner
Editor/Associate Publisher

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, June 2013