Do consumers get how immune health supplements work? Can they cut through the “immune washing”?

Do consumers get how immune health supplements work? Can they cut through  the “immune washing”?

A lot has been said about immune health supplements in the past year. Many companies today are spouting the pros of supplement products and ingredients for immune support, and customers eager to stay healthy especially during pandemic times are buying. Immune health dietary supplement sales today are astronomical. Nutritional Outlook’s recent January/February 2021 issue covered many of the ingredients now benefiting from growing global interest in ingredients that provide immune support.

While some consumers correctly understand that no supplement in the immune health aisle will treat or prevent a disease like COVID-19, others, unfortunately, don’t. FDA has been quicker than usual to correct misconceptions by issuing a swath of warning letters to companies of all kinds illegally marketing their products as COVID-19 cures.

But that still leaves a high percentage of consumers who in general don’t understand how immune health supplements work and what to reasonably expect from them. And here, companies within the dietary supplement industry can do a better job.

When it comes to “immune washing” supplements (overhyping the immune health potential of products and ingredients), marketing can be purposefully misleading—for instance, knowingly claiming that a product or ingredient can support immune health when in fact there isn’t research showing a strong direct link to Immunity vitamins, or claiming a product to be good for immune support when there isn’t actually a sufficient dose of ingredients in a product to be effective.

One can understand the desire of a company to slap the additional “immunity” claim on a product if it contains even a small amount of an ingredient linked loosely to immune support. But is doing so right? Probably not.

Ahead, we talk to two experts: one, a leading company in the immune supplements space, and the other a supplement expert who has stood on the side of consumers and understands how damaging misleading marketing can be to the end user. We asked what companies in this space can do better to not only protect consumers but also protect themselves—the entire immune health industry—in the long-term.

“I would say that the majority of consumers have no idea what to take, nor how much and how long, to achieve the results they want,” he says. “They trust marketing and packaging, which is dangerous.” In that respect, supplement users are really no different than consumers in other markets where customers primarily buy based on the seller’s word.

Foreman outlines the basic tenets of immune supplements. “Boiling it down: Supplements either stimulate the immune system to act quickly (i.e., produce more white blood cells), or they support the immune system (i.e., provide direct or indirect support by many possible mechanisms)…Additionally, there are supplements which support the downregulation of the immune response. We see this with regards to autoimmune conditions.”

Most consumers don’t differentiate between immunity stimulants versus ingredients that take a longer time to work. They don’t understand which ingredients support the immune system directly and which do so indirectly. In short, they don’t understand that different immune health supplements should be used in different ways.