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Dirty Nutrition Marketing Tactics: Unveiling the Dark Side of Supplement Industry and Social Media Marketing

 As a professional in the Nutrition industry and an expert in Functional Nutrition and Medical Nutrition Therapy (in other words, we’re trained in individualized targeted supplementation), I am constantly seeing what I would call “dirty” nutrition marketing tactics. Health and wellness goals usually have an emotional impact, whether it’s the discouragement around weight loss issues or the toll a health condition or symptoms can take on an individual. Marketing departments know this and use tactics that hit on the pain points of their potential customers. The advantage that they have over you is that they know that you aren’t experts in what they’re trying to sell you…but WE are. I see this most often in supplements being marketed to those for weight loss, hormone balance, sports nutrition, particularly muscle building products marketed to men, gastrointestinal products and adaptogens (botanical herbs to help with stress). 

The other side of this issue is that the supplement industry in the United States is largely unregulated. Technically the FDA is supposed to have some oversight, but supplements fall under the FDA because they are labeled as a “food” product. There are SOME rules. Mainly that you can’t claim that your product can “cure, prevent or treat a disease.” Since there isn’t much oversight before a supplement goes to market, they rely on companies to report adverse events, or side effects, if and when they happen. However, only an estimated 2% get reported.

The supplement industry is considered “unregulated” because although there are some regulations they are rather reactive. Unlike the prescription drug industry where there have to be successful trials, the supplement industry in the US has no such requirement. Folks can report harm done by a supplement, then it can be investigated and taken off of store shelves, but only after the public has had access to them. 


There are inherent risks to the consumer that the consumer may not realize. Let’s chat about them: 

There are doses of certain supplements that are not healthy to consume. Many vitamins and minerals have Upper Intake levels which means a person should not consume more than a certain amount. This is highly dependent on the vitamin, mineral or herb. Fat soluble vitamins, such as vitamin D, can be toxic and certain minerals that are harmless in smaller amounts can be deadly if taken in excess. It is the professional who has oversight on their nutrition clients that can make sure this isn’t happening. I’ve seen dangerously high levels of B6 taken because a person was taking multiple supplements with B6 in it that added up to a problematic dosage without even knowing that was an issue. I will also never forget a mentor of mine who had a patient who was incredibly ill come to them and they discovered that the patient was overdosing on a supplement. Unfortunately, they had been doing this for so long the patient died within a couple of weeks. Supplements, even over-the-counter ones, can be deadly if misapplied. 


Certain medications, treatments or health conditions can be contraindicated with a specific product or ingredient. There are supplement and medication contraindications that can cause mental health episodes and can even be deadly. It’s important that you tell your doctor when you’re taking a supplement, even just vitamin C, in case of contraindications. Conversely, you need to tell your nutritionist if you’re on any new medications. You should check with a healthcare provider before starting a new supplement for this same reason. Remember that supplement companies are not required to list contraindications on the bottle. Medications for mental health and blood pressure are two that I see a lot of contraindications for, so if you’re on those medications please be careful. 


The product may not contain what the label says it does. Multiple studies have shown over-the-counter supplements did not contain what was on the label and even went so far as to contain things like wood dust in them rather than the actual product on the label. Professionals use brands that they know and trust because we use them all the time and monitor progress and results of our clients, so we know they do what they say they will do. 


“Proprietary” blends do not have to put quantities of certain ingredients or all of their ingredients on the label. Have an allergy? You might not know it’s in this company’s proprietary blend. It also may not be supported by any real research. Often I will see mixed blends of herbs that have all been scientifically studied individually, but not in a blend or in THAT specific blend. What they are doing is extrapolating data that shows benefits of certain ingredients and blending them together with no research as to whether or not that blend actually works together. 


Ingredients are not dosed properly or correctly applied for YOUR specific situation. The risk here may be physical harm, but it may also just be the risk of throwing money away. I will often look at social media ads for supplements and look at what problem they’re claiming it will solve and then I will evaluate their ingredients label. MOST of the time it either contains a dosage completely substandard to what the research says is needed to solve that problem or it contains ingredients that I wouldn’t EVER apply to every single case because there are other factors to consider when choosing a specific ingredient for a specific case. Essentially…it’s throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. That’s a recipe for wasting a lot of money and time. In fact, many of our clients have wasted hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars trying a million different things before they finally gave up and called the professionals. Our perspective is: go straight to the source so you don’t waste your time or money guessing or falling for marketing schticks that are preying on you. 


As previously mentioned, these companies know and understand that you are not a professional in this field. They are great at spinning the product in a way that makes it sound completely scientifically sound and that it is going to solve your problem. 


Let me give you an example:

I recently saw an advertisement for a Magnesium and Ashwagandha combination product. Their website cited all this amazing research on how helpful Ashwagandha and Magnesium were and cited all the known benefits of taking these two things. None of this information was incorrect based on what science tells us. What was COMPLETELY incorrect was the dosage of the Ashwagandha for the reported clinical benefit. The magnesium type and dose were ok (there are 9 different types of magnesium that serve different purposes). I see this ALL the time with botanical medicine dosing. The correct dose of Ashwagandha would have to be 12 times what was in their product. 

Have you seen those adaptogenic booze-free drink ads? They are alcohol-free beverages that taste like craft cocktails and purport to give you a relaxing, stress reducing effect. Can you say placebo effect?! First, even IF the product contains the correct dose (they usually don’t) you would have to have the product 1-3 times per day for at least 6-8 weeks straight to see the full clinical benefit. Adaptogenic herbs are not like CBD or THC where you can get a quick effect. They take weeks to take full effect. If the motivation is to help you drink less with better habits, have at it, but this product will not give you immediate stress-lowering gratification that isn’t a placebo effect.  

How would YOU, the consumer who does not specialize in botanical medicine, have any idea that these were bogus products? The answer: you wouldn’t, and they’re banking on that. 

I had the same thing happen many times with clients taking fish oil products sold by various companies, including multi level marketing companies. Was the science the person shared with my client wrong? No, their company trained the sales staff on all the correct buzzwords, but the person selling it, as well as the person who purchased it, had no idea the product was useless for their health condition based on the dosage it provided.

You could argue that taking SOME of something is better than nothing at all, but if a doctor prescribed someone a medication with only 1/16th of the correct dosage, it wouldn’t do much good for the patient and they might as well save their copay. 


Trends in Social Media

We are seeing an uptick in advertisements for supplements, programs, influencer sponsorships, etc. in social media. Whether you’re spending your time on YouTube or Instagram, you’re exposed to this messaging. It could be in the form of a paid ad, but more often now we’re seeing companies giving free products to influencers or paying them behind the scenes to promote their products. 

I have a good friend who is a well known celebrity who went bonkers on social media in the last few years and so many companies were sending them things to promote that they started giving them to me because they couldn’t even keep up with all of it. I say this to illustrate how companies will take individuals who have what is called a “know, like and trust” factor,  or KLT, and have them promote their products for them. The company themselves hasn’t built the same level of KLT yet, so they hire influencers. When you then follow those people who you’ve already grown to know, like and trust, you’re definitely more susceptible to their messaging. 


When I follow experts I often ask myself 3 major questions:

  1. What are their qualifications? Is this someone who has advanced degrees, certifications, experience, AND training to be discussing this topic? If it’s a celebrity, a blogger who went through a health crisis and came out the other side, but doesn’t have professional training, or someone with a basic certification with no real education or background in the topic…I’m out. 
  2. Are they steeped in diet culture? If you’re not sure what I mean by that, start HERE to read our Diet Culture series. 
  3. Are they getting paid for this? Money can compromise even the best of people, whether or not they created and are selling their own products or someone else’s. There are many amazing professional brands from companies that have been around for decades making good quality products, so I’m always wary, especially when it comes to companies selling ONE product or products created by the influencer themselves. There are always exceptions to this, but it always gives me great pause first. 


Everyone is Individual and With Individuality Comes Nuance

Since everyone is an individual with their own genetics, health conditions, family history and current circumstances, it requires a nuanced approach to making supplemental recommendations for clients. Although science is always evolving, we are at a place and time where we don’t HAVE to necessarily throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. We CAN and DO evaluate individuals in a way that allows us to custom tailor interventions. We don’t do this solely through an online questionnaire or something of that nature. We have actual laboratory tests that can give us actual data whether it’s blood, stool, saliva, urine or genetics to tell us what’s up. This knowledge gives us SO much power to support and optimize the interventions given, saving you a lot of time and money in the long run. 

The next time you’re tempted to buy the latest magical supplement or program from a social media ad that seems to try to convince you that it will solve all your problems, remember what we’ve talked about here and hire a professional. 


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Autumn is the Founder and CEO of HopeWella Nutrition in Los Angeles, California. Featured in publications, podcasts and documentaries, such as Eat Play Diet, she is well-known in and around Southern California as a nutritional specialist in the areas if Digestive Health, Hormone Balance, Histamine Intolerance and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, Nutritional Genetics and Metabolic Health.

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