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What’s Old is New in Supplements and Natural Foods

In 2017, What’s Old is the New Awakening

2017 has been a step back in time. In some ways, that’s a good thing.  Who can blame consumers for looking for traditional alternatives to support their health?  The average life expectancy in the U.S. has fallen for the first time in many years, chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes are at an all-time high, and trust in mainstream science and public health is at an all-time low. However misguided, people are choosing to take their health and their lives into their own hands, and explore traditional options to support their health.

Whether your preferred era of nutritional guidance is Precambrian, Paleolithic or Victorian, you can probably agree that an examination of health and diet in its historical and traditional context is worthwhile, especially given the current state of our healthcare and food systems. The stuff we consume to keep us alive and healthy is now undergoing as momentous a change as any we have witnessed in the past hundred years. The sea change in consumer demand is driven by the availability of scientific (and non-scientific) information, and the understanding that it’s really healthspan, not lifespan, that is truly important. The amount of time we live with good health is far more valuable than the time we may live without.

One example of this new awakening is the realization of how physicians and consumers manage health conditions like pain. For millennia and until the early 1900s, everyone relied on natural pain relievers like cannabis, opium and alcohol to stem the pain and anxiety of medical conditions, surgeries and everyday life. Since then, we have all accepted their replacement—synthetic opioid painkillers. These work for pain, but now are the top killer of young people, and a primary driver of our reduced average life expectancy.  Any sane person watching this all happen is likely to explore alternatives—many of which have a long history of consumption, and are shown to be safe and effective in widespread usage and in controlled clinical trials. This explains the rapid movement toward natural alternatives for pain, like turmeric, cannabis and kratom. While these alternatives are generally considered safer, only some are considered legal by the federal government, a catch-22 too many people are familiar with.

The awakening, which could be called something like “DIY Healthspan Engineering,” is not just the domain of those with chronic pain or medical conditions. It represents the millions of people who have taken responsibility for their bodies and their health. In the food and supplement industry, it has led to a huge uptick in demand for natural, clean label, healthy foods with real, organic plants and animals (with names you can pronounce, of course). The collective visual of stepping back takes us to the pastoral scenes painted by Currier and Ives, during a time when we all were nourished by pesticide-free, organic apples handpicked from the local orchard. Or crowded around a fire eating only animal meat, depending on what nutrition expert you talk to.

New ideas from the evolving science, biohacker exploration and what seems like a hundred thousand “n=1″ studies has fueled the renaissance. The need for information, traceability and sustainability is now required to make informed decisions that help people to meet the ultimate goal of a longer healthspan. For manufacturers, these aims are often at the expense of production efficiency, shelf stability, ingredient availability, cost and flavor. On the flip side, these aims are often more consistent with the goals of quality assurance, whose job it is to figure out whether a particular material or product is safe and authentic. Yet growing pains for new ingredients abound; rapid spikes in demand for a particular ingredient tends to reduce the level of quality, and increases likelihood for adulteration.

The potential harm of reverting to traditional ways is that we don’t learn from our science, or our mistakes. While this awakening brings a number of positive changes, it is all too common for everyone to jump on a new bandwagon that sounds enticing, but fails to acknowledge basic facts and science. For example, to blindly remove or replace ingredients from dairy, wheat, soy and corn—some of the most nutritious whole foods known—neglects an understanding and logical analysis of the “why” behind their dismissal, and comes at some expense to public health and nutrition. We have yet to learn that these foods, or their method of breeding are not the culprit, and that in most cases they are sources of cost-effective nutrition that are unmatched by the coconut or quinoa du jour.

The dilemma for many marketers seeking to develop long-term value is to recognize and respond to market changes, and at the same time to use science as the guiding light to distinguish mob-driven fad from core truth. The path to success, as many have found, is to create simpler, more nutrient dense products backed by science, to make tangible investments in quality and supply chain, and to resist the urge to follow the crowd or use the cheapest materials available.

Bring on 2018.

First published in Natural Products Insider, December 2017