“Do you believe that the company that makes the product has to give proof of this claim? … I would like to believe it.”
CAMs, or Complementary and Alternative Medicines are an interesting grey area for the average consumer – somewhere between a medicine and a food. The shelves are full of them, so obviously we are buying them! But what does the man on the street think about the health claims made by these products?
We’ll be examining exactly what is regulated and how a little later in the newsletter – but for now let’s take a look into the mind of the average consumer. Do we believe that solid science and thorough testing back up every health claim that appears on marketed products?
I asked a few people in the medicine aisle of a few local grocery stores three questions:
1. When you see a health claim on a product such as “reduces blood pressure” “assists the immune system”, “aids in weight loss” or “lowers cholesterol” etc – do you believe it?
2. Do you feel that enough information is given on health claims as to how the product does this? Or don’t you feel this information needs to be included?
3. Do you believe that the company that makes the product has to give proof of this claim in order to be allowed to print the claim?
My first telling observation was that for the most part, people seemed surprised by the questions. This would lead me to think that many people hadn’t thought to question these claims – but perhaps I was wrong. Once presented with the questions, they came up with a few surprising answers. While overwhelmingly they seemed to believe that these claims should be strictly governed – many said that you had to employ ‘common sense’ when faced with a health claim on any product. These were often the same people who replied that they didn’t think enough information about how the product accomplished its health claim was given.
So it seems that while we obviously have a lot of consumers who do believe that health claims are strictly governed and can be trusted there is definitely a group which feels you can’t take a claim at face value. One participant mentioned something interesting – that they felt a claim like ‘reduces blood pressure’ should be backed up with proof, while a claim like ‘assists in weight loss’ was “more marketing than a real health claim”.
Some remarked that they rely on brand name when it comes to whether or not they trust a claim. If it is a well-known brand they are more likely to trust the claim, whereas one participant said you need to be more careful with a “dodgy” brand. Most participants said they felt the product should give more information about how it achieves what it claims – but one participant’s honest answer: “It would be too hard for me to understand” might give an indication as to why many products do not. Would a product that stated “Reduces blood pressure through the action of angiotensin- converting enzyme inhibitors” really give the average consumer any more useful information? Unlikely.
What did pleasantly surprise me was that many respondents felt it was important to do their own research before purchasing a complementary medicine, vitamin supplement or herbal remedy. In the Information Age, it seems the customer is starting to become more aware of their own power in making informed purchases – what they do want however is a guarantee that an authority is still looking out for us too. As one respondent replied to the question: ‘Do you believe that the company that makes the product has to give proof of this claim in order to be allowed to print the claim?’ “I would like to believe it.”
For a look into the mind of a more educated consumer, I asked my local pharmacist about these types of products – mainly herbal remedies – and why they stocked them. She confirmed that customer demand is one of the main factors in the pharmacy’s decision to stock them, but that they felt the products definitely benefited their customers too. What she was concerned about was how little information pharmacists have access to with regards to how these medicines could potentially interact with their patient’s prescription medications, but overall she felt the potential benefits of these types of medicines were often overlooked and warranted further study. When questioned about these products not being controlled by the MCC (Medicines Control Council) she made a good point – that she doesn’t need MCC approval to tell pharmacy visitors that increasing their fruit and vegetable consumption is good for them, so why should she discourage them from taking a herbal immune booster? That said, it would be hard to overdose on fruits and vegetables, which do not have written health claims attached to their packaging.
My opinion? My own journey has led me to believe that our lifestyle and dietary choices need to be addressed together with any other therapy – be it an alternative medicine or a prescription drug. And when it comes to health claims, I’m the kind of consumer who emailed a major supplement brand to find out whether their Vitamin B12 supplement contained methylcobalamin or cyanocobalamin – so let me place myself on the pernickety side of the consumer scale!
It’s also very important to mention of course that while there are many manufacturers selling products on the market that have blatantly misleading claims, there are also many manufacturers doing their best to comply to government requirements, ensure the customer’s safety and back up the effectiveness of their product with genuine health claims.
While I can’t quite shake the feeling that society needs to be more aware that every product they see on the shelf is there strictly for the purpose of getting you to buy it – perhaps times are changing. I still feel that we need to become more responsible consumers, that there’s no excuse in today’s world for simply taking a health claim at face value without doing our own research. And I think it’s just as important to Google “why XYZ supplements don’t work” in addition to why they do.
But I was impressed at the level of scepticism I encountered – while it’s very important that health claims are regulated where they can be to protect the consumer, an alert and educated public has the power to protect itself too.
Article by: Catherine Robinson