Finding the Right Balance Between Conventional and Alternative Health

There is no doubt that consumer health initiatives have enormously benefited governments, the industry, retailers and consumers for the past two decades. Yet, recent developments are making us pause and rethink strategies moving forward.

The widely accepted use of over-the-counter drugs is now being challenged by the growing notoriety of traditional and alternative approaches in healing. The mantra of health and wellness has slowly become a banner for “stay away from medicines” and instead encourage an adoption of natural remedies and healing alternatives with no “apparent” dangers of toxicity. This shift in healing views is creating confusion and frustration among consumers and the industry.

Looking at global trends, the categories of vitamins, dietary supplements and herbal/traditional products significantly increased their combined retail value by 16% in the 2006-2011 period to reach US$97.6 billion (constant terms/fixed exchange rate 2011). In contrast, OTC drugs saw their retail value rise 7% to US$81.5 billion. This comparison shows a faster consumer expenditure on vitamins, dietary supplements and herbal/traditional products to treat minor ailments, fill nutritional deficiencies or prevent diseases.

Enhancing trust on consumer health options

A broadening consumer’s adoption of alternative vs. conventional approach to healing does not come without controversies. The high popularity of dietary supplements and herbal/traditional products has translated into a quick and successful source of revenue for hundreds of companies, especially non-pharmaceutical, as regulatory requirements are not as stringent when compared to OTC drugs’ requirements. Unfortunately, this has led way for unscrupulous companies to deceive consumers by offering false health claims, tainted or contaminated products. Most countries have adopted mandatory Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) to assure quality and safety in products, but in some cases it is not enough.

The excitement over novel ingredients with health benefits along with the renaissance of old remedies (fish oils, probiotics, etc.) brought back to modern times incite marketers to position their products as new solutions for symptom improvement or disease prevention. Yet this excitement is winding down as regulatory agencies pay significant more attention to health claims and benefits supported by scientific evidence. Companies are changing their views and adopting corporate strategies to face further regulatory requirements on dietary supplements and herbal/traditional products. For example, several non-pharmaceutical companies are cutting their product lines to focus only on those that seem the most promising in supporting health claims. Pharmaceutical and ingredient companies are endorsing “pharmaceutical grade” supplements that can potentially comply with future regulations. Even packaged food company giants such as Danone and Nestlé are investing in medical nutrition that could meet future regulatory standards.

What does this mean to the average consumer?

Higher regulation of dietary supplements and herbal/traditional products can have several implications. While consumers will have access to safer and efficacious products to treat or prevent conditions, they may also see a narrowing array of options approved by regulatory agencies. Enhanced regulation seeks to remove unscrupulous companies from the marketplace while serious competitors build trust among consumers.

In the end, the new approach to healing will be based on an evidence-based combination of conventional OTC drugs and alternative options (vitamins, dietary supplements and herbal/traditional options). Consumers may start treating a headache with an alternative option. But if their headache is not going away, they may end up taking their OTC analgesic. Finding the right balance will be fundamental moving forward.