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From Snake Oil to Supplements: Understanding Consumer Mindset is Key to Marketing Dietary Supplement

“Snake oil” is used today as an expression that refers to the fraudulent health products or unproven medicine. The term “snake oil” is most known here in the U.S., as fraudulent health products that were largely marketed and sold at fairs and medicine shows in the 19th century, especially during the Old West era. The real history of snake oil in the U.S., however, dates back to the 1800’s when America saw thousands of Chinese workers immigrating as indentured laborers to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. With them, these Chinese immigrants brought many new medicinal products, one of which included snake oil – oil made of the Chinese water snake that is rich in omega-3 acids and can help reduce inflammation. In reality, snake oil, when authentic, was extremely effective when used to treat arthritis and bursitis. With the profitability of these new medicinal products, the Chinese American healers using the authentic snake oil as a remedy became incentivized to make snake oil here in the U.S. But due to the lack of Chinese water snakes available in the American West, healers began using rattlesnakes to create the product instead. Rattlesnake oil, however, was far less effective than the original Chinese snake oil. In fact, some of the snake oils marketed to consumers, such as Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil (aka the Rattle Snake King), did not actually contain any snake oil at all. After the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the U.S. federal government seized a shipment of Stanley’s snake oil, and found that it primarily contained mineral oil, a fatty oil believed to be beef fat, red pepper, and turpentine – but not a drop of snake oil.[1]

Fast forward to the 21st century market for supplements: in February 2015, the NY attorney general accused four major retailers – GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart –of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements and demanded that the companies remove the products from their shelves.[2] The authorities justified their claim of fraudulence by saying they conducted tests on top-selling brands of herbal supplements, and “found that four out of five of the products did not contain any of the herbs on the labels.”  Industry and other trade associations, however, fired back at the NY attorney general’s method of testing (i.e., DNA “bar coding” testing) explaining that “production processes may remove or damage the DNA of botanical ingredients, which means DNA testing is not an effective method for evaluating finished products.”[3] As the back and forth between industry, consumers, trade associations, and regulators continues, one consistent idea remains certain: the U.S. consumer is aware that fraudulent health products are on the market, but sound science is needed to differentiate between snake oils and proven herbal supplements.

The dietary supplement industry has yet to see a large impact on herbal supplements sales with the NY attorney general’s announcement; Vitamin Shoppe’s CEO Tony Truesdale reported that “We’ve seen a slight impact, but not a dramatic impact”[4]. Even so, supplement brands are working harder than ever to support the validity, safety and efficacy of their products. Supplement retailers today are highly pressed to make sure that their manufacturers follow all good manufacturing practices (GMPs), can prove that the ingredients have been tested and proven for both safety and efficacy, and properly label their products for all allergens.

Since the early 19th century, and even back to antiquity, consumers have been marketed to with fraudulent and unproven medicines. Today, the feelings of mistrust and low consumer confidence in products that make extravagant and unproven claims continue. For consumers, it is more important than ever to adhere to the advice of caveat emptor, and fully research the science behind the supplements and the brands that you intend to purchase. For industry, this is the time to step up to the plate and realize for once and for all that consumers will not tolerate, and will not purchase, unsafe, untested and unproven supplements.


[4] Vitamin Shoppe CEO on ripple effects of NY AG probe: ‘We’ve seen a slight impact, but not a dramatic impact’ By Stephen DANIELLS, 24-Feb-2015, Nutra-Ingredients USA

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