"Lotions, Potions, Weeds and Seeds - A Prescription for Natural Self Care"

Sam Knoll
Virginia Beach, VA
November 17, 2004

"What is 'echina-something', and why would anyone eat mushroom capsules when she has a cold?" This was a question posed to me by a neighbor after talking with her sister about different ways of dealing with colds and flu. She was trying to understand the terminology, whether these things really work, and where she could buy them. And this neighbor is clearly not alone in her puzzlement. Many people move easily through the world of vitamins, herbs and other natural remedies, but to newcomers it is often a mysterious maze of conflicting information, strange names and sometimes, seemingly unbelievable claims.

My neighbor came to me for an explanation because she knew that I had worked in the nutritional supplement industry for over 20 years. She'd been hearing about these strange "potions" for a long time, and finally decided to look into this world of supplements, prevention and self-care. But as I thought about her questions, I realized that she is definitely not alone in her search for information. So I did a little research on the topic and learned that, by some accounts, roughly 60 percent of American consumers take dietary supplements on a regular basis. Among the most popular reasons people give for taking supplements is that they make you feel better, they help prevent illness, and they help you get better when you're sick. Many people even take supplements because their doctor suggested they take them. Among older Americans (age 50 and up), more than two out of three report supplementing their diet with vitamins, minerals or herbs and many of these consumers consider such supplements to be essential for people their age.

Another consumer survey showed that half of those surveyed find information about vitamins (and other supplements) too confusing. The authors speculated that this may due to media influence and the publication of so many conflicting stories. In fact, according to this same report, it is a common occurrence for many consumers to simply give up trying to make sense of the situation, and to wait until some more definitive word is issued by a "trustworthy source". This, in turn, helps explain why so many people are willing to trust the recommendation of their physician, the local pharmacist, or a friend or family member. After all, relying on someone you trust for information does seem to simplify the decision-making process.

My personal experience in the dietary supplement business also confirms that there is an almost constant need for more and better information. In the early 1980's I started a company called Home Health Products, a manufacturer and mail order marketer of natural health care products including many supplements. In those days, many friends and family members had little concept of what "health food" and "natural self care" meant. Long-time friends often joked about our "elixirs, lotions and potions", and even my mother referred to our family as "health food nuts". Many of my customers, industry colleagues and supporters were folks who ate whole wheat bread, sang folk songs and wore Birkenstocks. Our own children laughingly referred to such people as "granolas" but now these same children (and their children) rarely touch white bread, and they all own Birkenstocks!

The marketing side of Home Health Products was really all about information; how to keep an open mind and not reject some new "alternative therapy" just because I didn't understand how it worked, but also being alert enough to question the more dubious concepts that were presented to us. The industry has many bright and innovative people, but also attracts an unfortunate number of charlatans. It was a business where highs and lows came by surprise. The health food market is often driven by fads and publicity both good and bad. An unexpected Newsweek article on Melatonin, for example, created a tremendous surge of demand one year. But then there was a dismal Christmas when my family left for a planned trip while I stayed home, working with lawyers, trying to stave off efforts by the US Postal Service to shut us down all because some local postal inspector thought several of our products, which had been on the market for decades if not centuries, were potentially dangerous. Maybe he'd been talking with the FDA who, I was told, considered us part of the "weeds and seeds" group.

Along the way I also took a try at the retail side of the business, and am now an owner of 9 "health food" stores located across southeastern Virginia. (I refer to these as "health food" stores, but their primary emphasis is vitamins, herbs and other supplements.) And so, between talking on the telephone with hundreds of Home Health Products customers, and meeting numerous customers in our stores, I've had a chance to hear first-hand the many types of questions people have on this topic. I've learned that people who use dietary supplements are, by and large, information seekers. They tend to be well educated, but sometimes confused by either incomplete or conflicting information available on supplements. And even if they're not confused, they want to know more about what will keep them healthy, what will solve their current problem, what works, why it works, and how we know whether or not it really does work.

Two years ago, in thinking about the issue of consumer questions and the need for better information in the supplement market, it dawned on me that a way to solve this problem was through the Internet. So I spent a couple of months researching what's available on the topic through the "web", and learned some interesting facts: During an average day, 6 million North Americans seek medical advice online. Some 93% of these research particular diseases, 63% seek information about nutrition, exercise and weight control, and 48% seek information on alternative medicine. I also found that there is a lot of information on vitamins, herbs, supplements and general nutrition available on many different web sites. But often that information is from sources of unknown credibility, and in many other cases, it is provided by companies that also sell supplements raising the obvious question of just how unbiased their information really is.

I also found that I had to look at too many web sites, often drilling down many layers through multiple links. This type of information is fine if you have the time, patience, and knowledge of how to search the Internet. My perception, however, was that there was a need for a truly unbiased, authoritative, easy-to-use source of information on supplements, nutrition, and the health conditions they affect. The concept quickly expanded to include information on food, recipes, potential interactions between medication and various supplements, lifestyle choices and more. This was the concept behind what is now www.MyVitaminGuide.com, a web site I launched this past summer.

To keep the web site unbiased, I decided to make it a membership site, supported only by subscription fees from its members. No products would be sold, no advertising accepted, and no commissions accepted from other companies that may receive sales as a result of the information we provide. To keep the information authoritative, we license the content from reputable organizations that are in the business of providing such information; organizations that have well established credentials and procedures in place to assure that the information they provide is accurate, timely, even-handed, easy-to-understand and well documented.

The last twenty years in this health and self-care market have been fun and exciting. I've seen fledgling companies grow into large and respected manufacturers of high-quality supplements and food products. I've helped fight for laws and regulations that give the industry more freedom to talk about legitimate product benefits, yet protect the consumer from false and misleading claims. I've seen the industry grow from a relatively small, specialized niche to a multi-billion dollar market served by innovative, world-class retailers. All of this has been helped by the changing demographics of our society (boomers want to stay healthy and live forever), a general trend toward accepting responsibility for one's own health, a desire to reduce personal expenses, and a growing awareness that avoiding a disease is preferable to treating it later.

After selling Home Health Products in the mid-1990's, I tried retirement but didn't really care for it. I like the world of business, and missed many elements of my former enterprise. Now I think I've found the answer with My Vitamin Guide, combining the freshness and excitement of the Internet with my experience and knowledge of the natural health care market. It isn't easy getting yourself noticed when a Google search on "vitamin" returns 8.5 million pages, but it's very gratifying to be back in an industry that is constructive and helpful in so many people's lives.

Sam Knoll
Email to: Sam@MyVitaminGuide.com