I find it interesting that people seem to love to hate on Big Pharma, but attitudes towards the natural products industry seem to be much more positive. I’m not trying to suggest that Big Pharma is wonderful, because they’re not; I just don’t think the dichotomy of Pharma being bad and the natural products industry being good is an accurate reflection of reality. Both industries are out to make money off of us, and corporations’ priorities are their shareholders, not their customers.
According to Grand View Research, “The global dietary supplements market size was valued at USD 151.9 billion in 2021 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.9% from 2022 to 2030.” That’s a lot of money. Granted, it’s an order of magnitude smaller than the global pharmaceutical industry, which was valued at $1.27 trillion in 2020 by Statista, but it’s definitely not small potatoes.
In both the US and Canada (and probably elsewhere, too), governments don’t regulate supplements the same way as pharmaceuticals. The US Food and Drug Administration website says that the FDA “is not authorized to approve dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed. In fact, in many cases, firms can lawfully introduce dietary supplements to the market without even notifying FDA.” Furthermore, “If the dietary supplement contains a NEW ingredient, manufacturers must notify FDA about that ingredient prior to marketing. However, the notification will only be reviewed by FDA (not approved) and only for safety, not effectiveness.”
The FDA also says, “Unlike drugs, supplements are not permitted to be marketed for the purpose of treating, diagnosing, preventing, or curing diseases.”
Pharmaceuticals, on the other hand, are subject to much stricter regulations, and both efficacy and safety must be demonstrated in order for them to make it to market. A given drug may not work for you, but it had to work for some people to make it to market. There’s no requirement for a supplement to demonstrate any effectiveness for anything in order to be sold. As a 2020 Washington Post column pointed out, “Most dietary supplements don’t do anything. Why do we spend $35 billion a year on them?”
Research & development
According to a 2021 report by the US Congressional Budget Office, on average, pharmaceutical companies spent almost 1/4 of their net revenue on research and development in 2019. The same report says that only 12% of drugs that enter clinical trials end up being approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The natural products industry, on the other hand, isn’t doing that kind of R&D. That means that for supplements, a greater proportion of the selling price is going to net profit.
The natural is better myth
The whole idea of natural = good for you is nonsense. Whether it’s blowfish with their deadly botulinum toxin, plants like poison hemlock or deadly nightshade, viruses like Ebola or rabies, or a whole host of bacteria, nature is very happy to kill you if it gets the chance.
Back in the day when everything was more “natural”, infant mortality was high, and the average lifespan was 30-something years. Better sanitation helps to lower the infant mortality rate and extend the human lifespan, but you know what’s really made a difference? Vaccines, antibiotics, and all that other stuff that didn’t exist back in the day when people were dropping like flies.
So yes, there are things found in nature that are good for you and things made in labs that are bad for you, but simply knowing whether something is found in nature or made in a lab has no bearing on whether that particular substance will help or harm you.
The almighty dollar
Just because a company is selling a supplement rather than a drug doesn’t magically make them any less money-hungry or any more altruistic. None of this is to say that supplements are bad and pharmaceuticals are good; both have the potential to be bad or good, and what’s good for one person might be bad for another person. My point is that the companies that are making supplements don’t have their angel halos on. They’re just as focused on the almighty dollar as pharmaceutical companies are, and they’re making a whole heck of a lot of those dollars.
There’s nothing wrong with using supplements, and some do have research evidence to support their effectiveness for certain conditions (like L-methylfolate for depression). But don’t be deceived into thinking that “natural” automatically means good for you or that the companies selling these products to you are focused on your best interests. They’re not; they’re focused on dollars, just like the pharmaceutical companies are. It’s up to us to be wise consumers.
Do you tend to view the pharmaceutical and natural product/supplement industries differently? Do you think it’s possible that one might be just as money-hungry as the other?