Science or Sizzle?

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By January W. Payne
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The GenSpec brand of dietary supplements, proclaimed to be the "first genetically specific product line," aims distinct products at blacks, whites and Hispanics, and at men and women within each group.

GenSpec's multivitamins for African American and Hispanic males and females, for instance, contain higher amounts of vitamin D because, the Florida-based maker of the products says, the skin of darker-toned people doesn't make as much vitamin D from the sun as that of lighter-skinned people.

Because women have a higher risk of the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis than men, GenSpec's multivitamins for black, white and Hispanic women contain higher amounts of bone-enhancing calcium.

Unique "physiological and metabolic differences" can make certain groups more likely to develop some diseases, said Joseph Lander, president and founder of GenSpec. The small company, which also sells race-targeted weight-loss pills, bases its products on research into key racial health distinctions, Lander said. The company plans to start selling an Asian multivitamin in the next month.

While the approach may demonstrate clever marketing, some experts said, there is no gold-standard science showing that members of these groups are healthier if they take targeted nutrients in pills.

Asked to review the research posted on the GenSpec Web site, Jane Delgado, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, said the information "wasn't very compelling." She continued: "It's not surprising that people want to market to each [ethnic] group, but I think at this point what the communities need to know is how to eat better."

The products follow the release last year of another race-based supplement, Perfusia-SR, which targets African Americans with cardiovascular disease. That supplement, made by Thorne Research Inc., was billed as a nondrug alternative to BiDil, the first medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use exclusively by African Americans.

GenSpec has launched a targeted advertising campaign in several Hispanic- and black-oriented publications, including Sports Illustrated Latino, Hispanic, Latina, Ebony, Black Enterprise and Jet.

GenSpec's African American and Hispanic products are nearly identical -- both contain higher amounts of vitamin D and slightly more zinc than its formulations for whites. The company said research shows blacks and Hispanics don't consume enough zinc through their diets. Zinc aids wound healing and helps support growth and development and maintain the senses of smell and taste.

With the exception of vitamin D levels, the Caucasian line is very similar to the company's black and Hispanic products. There are some small variations of other ingredients, including less copper (needed for normal growth and health) in the white and African American products than in the Hispanic version. And the white and Hispanic multivitamins for men include greater amounts of selenium (a mineral needed for good health) and manganese (an essential trace nutrient) than the product for African American men.

GenSpec upped the amount of vitamin D included in its black and Hispanic formulations to 800 international units (IU), compared with 400 IU provided for whites. The adequate daily intake of vitamin D suggested by the federal Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) is 200 IU for people aged 14 to 50; 400 IU for those between 51 and 70; and 600 IU for people older than 70. The upper limit -- the most vitamin D that can be safely consumed -- is 2,000 IU.

Scientists agree that high content of melanin -- the pigment that provides skin with its color -- reduces how much vitamin D is produced in the body after exposure to sunlight. The vitamin also promotes the absorption of calcium, helping to form strong bones.

But experts say the evidence on the company's Web site supporting the inclusion in its products of certain ingredients, including vitamin D, is questionable.

For example, GenSpec's Web site states that 100 percent of Hispanics and African Americans "tested by the Mayo Clinic had deficient levels of vitamin D, which is directly related to lower calcium absorption." But because that figure refers to a 2003 Mayo Clinic study of children and adults with persistent musculoskeletal pain, experts said, the data may not translate to a healthy population.

"I don't think that there's merit to these particular claims to stratify vitamins based on ethnicity," said Winston Price, immediate past president of the National Medical Association, an organization that represents the interests of black doctors. "A person cannot walk into a pharmacy and, based on identifying themselves, know what their genetic makeup is [and] know that they're picking up the right package of vitamins."

The American Medical Association has urged Congress to more strongly regulate dietary supplements, requiring a study of a product's safety and efficacy before it is marketed.

Some experts don't see a need for such targeted products. "It's a good idea" to get more vitamin D by eating more foods and liquids fortified with calcium and vitamin D and by getting more sun, said Adriane Fugh-Berman, associate professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. "But this idea to take more [through the new supplements] is based on marketing, not science."

Lander said his company is simply taking the next step in a long history of segmentation of the multivitamin and supplement market -- a trend that began years ago when product makers began targeting women with multivitamins containing extra calcium for bone health; men with multivitamins containing lycopene, an antioxidant linked to prostate health; and those over age 50 with multivitamins that included lots of extras said to lower blood pressure and improve joint and heart health.

People of mixed heritage who don't fit neatly into any of the categories should choose the product based on skin pigmentation, Lander suggested.

Denise Feeley, a nutritionist and research coordinator with the Medstar Research Institute, said she needs to see more research before embracing pills targeted at racial or ethnic groups. Such supplements may become common in the future, she said, "but we've got to get some scientific data to support that. . . . I think segmentation is a good thing if the data support it."

Fugh-Berman isn't sold and had specific concerns about targeted weight-loss supplements.

"People in different ethnic groups do not metabolize food differently," though genetics and diet do affect metabolism, she said.

But "it's certainly inventive to use this sort of racial profiling for marketing purposes." ยท

Comments: paynej@washpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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