Do you know who owns your favorite supplement brand? If not, would you ever guess that it might be Clorox? If you happen to use Natural Vitality CALM products, then, this is the case. Why does it matter? Who owns your supplement brand may make a big difference in terms of your supplements' purity, quality, and effectiveness.
The Corporate Capture
Supplement brands are frequently acquired, or bought out, by large, multinational conglomerates, such as Clorox. In recent years, private equity firms, and, increasingly, large pharmaceutical corporations have been racing to buy up supplement companies. As a result, many of the most popular supplement brands on the market today are owned by a small number of conglomerates. Vital Proteins, Klean Athlete, and Garden of Life are all owned by Nestlé, for example.
In 2018, Dr. Neal Smoller, a holistic pharmacist and advocate for the nutritional supplement industry, created the following graphic. It includes a small sampling of some of the many U.S. supplement brands that have been acquired by multinational conglomerates.
Why are pharmaceutical corporations buying supplement brands?
It may take decades and cost billions to develop a new viable pharmaceutical drug. Creating a new nutritional supplement product, on the other hand, requires far less time and involves far fewer regulations. Pharmaceutical corporations are eager to take advantage of these faster product launches with fewer regulatory complications. By expanding into the supplement industry, they also gain access to new consumer markets.
At least 57.6% of Americans have taken a vitamin supplement within the past 30 days.1
The global supplement market is anticipated to grow from $129.60 billion in 2021 to $196.56 billion in 2028.2
As the statistics above indicate, there is widespread demand for nutritional supplements in the U.S., and the industry is poised for rapid growth. Pharmaceutical corporations have taken note and are trying to seize the opportunities this presents. Through a frenzy of mergers and acquisitions, they’ve been staking an ever-increasing claim on the nutritional supplement industry.
Why might this be concerning?
Most publicly traded pharmaceutical corporations answer to a myriad of shareholders and investors. This means their primary objective will, likely, always be to increase profits. Such demands may be met either through cost-cutting measures that may compromise quality or through frequent price increases on prescription medications. As such, these corporations may be structured in such a way that encourages prioritizing profits over the well-being of patients and consumers.
Further, profit margins for pharmaceutical companies tend to increase as illness increases. For example, as more and more people require long-term medications for chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes, the profits for drug companies also tend to rise. Nutritional supplement brands, on the other hand, tend to profit by offering products that aim to improve health and wellness. Many supplements are designed with the specific intention of preventing illness. This contrasts with traditional pharmaceutical drugs that are used as treatments in the presence of illness. It also creates a conflict of interest for pharmaceutical corporations that own both drug companies and supplement brands but may profit more from treating, rather than preventing, illness.
Corporate takeovers may raise other ethical concerns as well. These can include issues around animal testing, environmental impacts, and effects on local communities. Another point to consider is that by entering the nutritional supplement industry, pharmaceutical corporations may be able to limit how much the natural health sector impinges on drug makers’ profits. Additionally, there are concerns over the ability of massive conglomerates to influence policy, particularly, the legislation through which they, themselves, are regulated.
What happens to a supplement brand once it is acquired?
The acquiring corporation often aims to reduce the operating costs of the supplement brand it now owns. Generally, it seeks to streamline production processes and imposes several cost-cutting measures. These changes, while profitable, can degrade the purity and quality of supplements. For example, when the process of ingredient sourcing is streamlined, raw materials may no longer be vetted as carefully as they had been previously.
Parent corporations may introduce proprietary blends into the nutritional supplements they have acquired. As such, product labels cease to disclose all ingredients along with their amounts per serving. Instead, groups of ingredients are listed under names, such as, “Super Fruit Blend,” or “Multi Collagen Complex,” without any indication as to their amounts per serving. The use of proprietary blends allows corporations to increase the proportion of the less expensive ingredients used in supplements, which reduces costs. This practice often decreases the effectiveness of supplements, which may no longer contain sufficient amounts of their active ingredients.
As the new parent corporation steps in and imposes such changes, the original owners of the supplement brand may find that they are limited in their abilities to make objections. They may no longer have the final say about decisions regarding the brand. As such, the original brand mission and voice may become diluted over time.
How can you tell if you can trust your supplement brand?
First, find out who owns it. Keep in mind that independently owned supplement companies may adhere to higher quality standards. Similarly, smaller, mission-driven brands may operate according to higher ethical standards. Next, carefully read the product label and look for credible third-party validation. With reliable third-party testing, you can be confident that your supplement contains everything it should and nothing it shouldn’t.
- Who owns it?
- Does it use third-party testing?
- Does it use safe, pure, & clean ingredients?
- Are all ingredients & amounts/serving clearly listed?
- Does it use the optimal forms of ingredients?
- Does it provide clinically effective dosages?
- Do the values of this brand align with your own?
- Has it received any industry awards?
1Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics (2021). Dietary Supplement Use Among Adults: United States, 2017–2018. [Data file]. Available from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db399.htm.
2Fortune Business Insights (2021). Vitamins and Supplements Market Size, Share & COVID-19 Impact Analysis, by Type (Multivitamins, Calcium Supplements, Pediatric Supplements, and Others), Form (Capsule, Tablet, Powder, and Liquid & Gel), Distribution Channel (Supermarkets, Convenience Stores, Specialty Stores, and Online Retails), and Regional Forecast, 2021-2028. Available from https://www.fortunebusinessinsights.com/vitamins-and-supplements-market-10405.