On whose authority ? The challenge of botanical science communication
Science and marketing do not always see eye to eye in many fields of endeavor from automobiles to medicines to social media to food science.
This is certainly the case in the sometimes giddy world of food supplements where the tendency of marketing teams to lean into emotional, impactful health messaging often runs counter to more complex, nuanced scientific truths that frequently exist for vitamins, minerals, botanicals and other nutritional compounds.
There are many responsible food supplement brands doing their best to accurately reflect the science in their consumer and business-facing communications, but claims embellishment is also unfortunately common.
With lax claims enforcement in many jurisdictions the world over, this side of the food supplements industry can unfortunately exist relatively unchecked.
While short term financial gains may flow to the entities involved, this kind of activity ultimately has a short shelf life as enforcement finds them, or consumers reject products that rarely meet exaggerated label claims.
If consumers aren’t feeling the benefit, repeat purchases are rare. That is the kind of real-world product validation not even cautious EU food lawmakers can legislate against.
This kind of, shall we say, loose use of science is ultimately damaging to the whole nutraceutrical category – and amplified by a broader societal distrust of anything vaguely institutional, including the university labs where most is conducted.
So yes, science and marketing do not always see eye to eye.
But when they do the results can be powerful.
CRACKING OPEN THE NUTRITION CONUNDRUM
As a group of Dutch nutrition researchers wrote in a 2017 editorial published in the European Journal of Nutrition : “What grasps the public eye are often oversimplified statements about what is or is not healthy. Yet such absolute claims, which may also originate from nutritionists, are often contested later on.”
“This results in confusion among lay persons about what they can and cannot ‘believe’. More nuanced or not readily applicable knowledge from nutrition scientists, if communicable and communicated at all, is not often well perceived.”
This goes to the heart of the issue. Nutrition science can be complex, confusing, hard to communicate – even to an industry audience. Even when conveyed by skilled nutraceutical thought leaders and communicators.
Add another layer of opaqueness when the intended audience is a mass public who typically don’t have the time or the inclination to grasp such nutrition science intricacies as intervention dosage, timing, biomarkers, population selection, study power, mechanisms of action and more.
JUNKING JUNK SCIENCE
So there is that thorny issue of communicating difficult nutrition science concepts to a non-scientific audience.
Add the challenge of quality variance in nutrition science.
The fact that much nutrition science is corporate funded in the absence of greater levels of government-backed research does not play well with a skeptical public, even if the results are verifiably peer-reviewed and independent.
“Competing claims, fuzzy results, interestedness, and messiness are all part of ‘normal science’, and ask for critical debate,” the Dutch researchers observed. “Despite the overall integrity of nutrition scientists, to the general public these public–private collaborations engender doubts on the independence and reliability of scientists.”
“This effect is amplified by research institutes wishing to score with high profile, high impact publications and with ‘simple’ messages that attract media attention.”
As authors of a 2018 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition investigation  into the state of nutrition science put it, not all studies have strong answers for questions such as:
- Is the research question important?
- Does the study design address the question?
- Was the study well performed?
- Were steps taken to ensure objectivity?
- Was the proper statistical analysis used?
- Were the right conclusions drawn?
- Is enough information reported to answer these questions?
Agendas may or may not be known, but regardless, the science must live up to expectations that center on robustness and replicability if the goal is to improve the credibility of nutrition research,” they wrote.
THE POWER OF (GOOD) NUTRITION SCIENCE
In the botanical realm, the ‘science problem’ is amplified by the molecular complexity of most medicinal plants that makes narrow compound-focused research almost impossible, which in turn leads to a body of ‘traditional use’ research which is not necessarily favored by regulators.
Due to the natural molecular variability of botanicals, whole plant concoction studies are simply not repeatable and robust. That’s just how it is.
As we wrote in an earlier blog, it’s for this reason about 1500 botanical health claim submissions are on-hold in the European Union – quite simply the 27-nation bloc’s food assessment authorities can’t decide if tradition of use data is worthy to back health claims. With this EU-level regulatory limbo, European countries have been left to implement their own rules, with great variance in interpretation.
This kind of regulator skepticism toward botanical science is replicated in much of the world and is the reason very few botanical health claims are permitted anywhere.
These are some of the challenges faced by botanical supplement brands when trying to engage with consumers about their inherent health benefits.
And despite all these challenges, good nutrition science communicated in the right way can be one of the most powerful tools a nutritional products marketeer can have in their arsenal.
In the $56bn global supplements space that is set to grow annually at 7.7% to reach $117bn by 2032, according to Future Market Insights , consumer trust is everything, and nothing builds trust like solid, well-communicated science.
IMPACTFUL, MARKET-FACING NUTRITION SCIENCE
Supplement majors like The Bountiful Company, Garden of Life, Now Foods, Blackmores and many more often devote a big proportion of their revenues to R&D with big investments in pure, clinical research to build efficacy data around particular products and which can be used in claims submissions to regulators.
Regulations vary around the world in terms of how tightly such research can be linked to products, but it is common practice for supportive research to appear on product websites even in the absence of authorized claims.
In countries like France the 2-click rule is an unwritten guide whereby scientific references can be permitted as long as there exist two clicks between the supplement in question and the supporting scientific literature.
Again though, a reference to a study is no guarantee of quality.
The most robust, trustworthy science – gold standard – are double blind, randomized, controlled trials published in high-impact, peer-reviewed nutrition journals like The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, the British Journal of Nutrition, the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Annual Review of Nutrition and Nutrition.
Sites like this one compare various journal impact metrics in areas like plant science.
The use of imagery and product endorsements from nutrition and medical experts and key opinion leaders are other practices adopted by supplement brands to communicate a range of health benefits. Can opinion leaders be trusted to be independent if they are commercially backed? Perhaps not, but if the science behind their assertions is solid? With a little rigorous method, each can be assessed on its own merits.
A firm like French player, Nutri&co, is a good example of getting science comms right with clear, sober assessments of the available science for each of its products and the ingredients they contain.
In addition, detailed supply chain information achieves traceability few companies can match.
GOING FOR GOLD IN SCIENCE COMMUNICATION
Of course when we reference research favourable to botanicals or ginseng or vertical farming we understand it can benefit our business.
It’s about being transparent. There are always plenty of other sources – like the science journal articles themselves for instance – against which to verify and compare what we or anyone else may say.
This is the place BOTALYS is coming from. Impactful communication of gold standard science and ethical supply chains.
Call it an agenda or a bias if you like. We call it a science-driven business mission to cultivate botanicals in a way that is better for consumers and better for the planet.
The same ethos informs our publications be they blogs or white papers or research contributions. To share and explain the prevailing science around botanical and ginseng cultivation, harvesting, processing and efficacy in the most objective way.
To help our branded partners develop scientifically-backed formulations and products.
And if we’re not doing this we’d like to know about it – we’ll always take onboard genuine enquiries about anything we publish from the botanists and the scientific community, from the business world, from regulators and the public.
In this way the BOTALYS and peer-reviewed scientific method are pretty well-aligned.
 Penders, B., Wolters, A., Feskens, E.F. et al. Capable and credible? Challenging nutrition science. European Journal of Nutrition Volume 56, Pages 2009–2012, July 2017.
 Cynthia M Kroeger, Cutberto Garza, Christopher J Lynch, Esther Myers, Sylvia Rowe, Barbara O Schneeman, Arya M Sharma, David B Allison, Scientific rigor and credibility in the nutrition research landscape, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 107, Issue 3, March 2018, Pages 484–494.