The ethics of the food supplement industry are placed under the spotlight in a new 8-page survey of the sector by Ethical Consumer. The survey – ‘A tough pill to swallow’ – raises questions about marketing tactics, ingredients, supply chain transparency and environmental performance across the whole of the sector, including specialist health food brands.
In total 23 supplements brands are rated by Ethical Consumer using its longstanding ‘Ethiscore’ system, based on 18 separate ethical measures spanning everything from environmental reporting to animal testing, human rights to tax conduct.
VEG1 (a small range from the Vegan Society) and Ethical Nutrition top the Ethiscore rankings, achieving ‘Best Buys’ status, while Viridian leads ‘Recommended’ brands, followed by Veganicity, A. Vogel, Health Plus, Nature’s Plus and Biocare. All of the brands rated as ‘Brands to avoid’ are owned by multinational pharma or food companies, with Nestlé-owned brands occupying all of four bottom-placed rankings.
Ethical Consumer warns consumers to be wary of misleading marketing from some companies, which, it suggests, often takes the form of strategic vagueness. So, while outright claims that a product or ingredient prevents or treats a particular disease are usually avoided by brands, “carefully constructed phrasing is used to imply benefits”. Bloggers and influencers, it says, are increasingly used as marketing proxies for brands or for the benefit of wider the sector.
The non-profit also questions whether the industry over-promotes supplementation generally, by using what might be called the ‘hectic lifestyle’ argument. This is where brands acknowledge official UK advice that “most people can get all the vitamins they need by eating a healthy, balanced diet” (with the exception of specific life-stage needs), but point out in marketing that busy lifestyles and the prevalence of ready-meals and takeaways mean that in reality many people have nutritional gaps that are most conveniently addressed with supplementation.
Ethical Consumer suggests that, when consumers are evaluating whether they need to supplement, “the last people to put your faith in should be those who have a commercial interest in you purchasing their products”.
On sustainability, the report finds that brand claims in this area tend to focus on packaging and recycled materials, where it acknowledges that good work is being done. However, it says that supplement brands are less forthcoming about the environmental impacts of their sourcing, manufacturing, and distribution processes. Ethical Consumer says it found a “near total absence of policy” on the use of palm oil, with just three brands – Viridian, Ethical Nutrition, and VEG 1 – stating that they were totally free of palm oil and its derivatives. Similarly, there was comparatively little information provided on companies’ use of GMO ingredients (the report notes that “GM microorganisms are commonly used in the production of vitamins A, B2, B12, C and D as well as in thickeners like xanthan”. Only VEG 1, Viridian, Healthspan, Holland & Barrett, Floradix, and Nature’s Plus definitely stated that all of their products are free from GMOs. “All of the other companies in the guide were assumed to be using them,” the report’s authors said.
- The full survey can be viewed a here