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Big Pharma Buying Up Supplement Companies

Big Pharma Buying Up Supplement Companies

Major shifts are, and have been, occurring in the supplement industry. Here’s how they could affect your access.

Correction (11/28/2022): The infographic below detailing supplement companies owned by larger companies originally indicated Planet Paleo was owned by HGGC, which is incorrect. The company owned by HGGC is Paleo Planet.

Over the last few decades, mega-corporations have been increasingly investing in the supplement sector—especially during the last few years, which has seen a boom in mergers and acquisitions. Since 2017, over $20 billion has been invested in supplement companies by the likes of Bayer, Nestle, Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, and Clorox. Mergers and acquisitions in the supplement sector have surged: in 2018, there were 83 transactions; in 2021, there were 137. It’s no secret why large corporations are moving in—the supplement market grew from $28 billion in 2010 to almost $60 billion in 2021.

The bottom line is that many supplement brands you see on store shelves are owned by large corporations that traditionally do not deal in supplements. The question is, what does this mean for our access to quality products that support our health?

First, what is a quality supplement? The quality of ingredients is the first marker of a good supplement. Poor quality supplements do not provide the right forms of bioavailable vitamins. They provide vitamin E as synthetic dl-alpha tocopherol acetate instead of mixed tocopherols and tocotrienols. They can contain other ingredients like additives and fillers that some consumers will want to avoid. Not only are the ingredients of lower quality, they are less potent. Pfizer’s Centrum Silver multivitamin, for example, provides only 60 mg of vitamin C, 3 mg of vitamin B6, 50 mg of magnesium, and 19 mcg of selenium. Higher quality supplement brands sell products with higher nutrient levels. Instead of 60 mg of vitamin C, some brands have 500 mg, and over 30 mg of vitamin B6 instead of just 3 mg.

Companies investing in the supplement space are almost universally known for their products in other industries. Bayer is a pharmaceutical and biotech company—you may remember that they acquired Monsanto, the maker of glyphosate. Unilever is known for beauty and personal care products like Dove and Axe body spray. Nestle is a food company known for chocolate and sweets. Proctor & Gamble owns brands like Tide, Downy, Charmin, Head & Shoulders, Crest, and many, many more.

Nestle Health Science, a division of Nestle, bought Pure Encapsulations and Douglas Foods, along with a host of other supplement companies, including Garden of Life, Vital Proteins, Nuun, Wobenzym, Persona Nutrition, Genestra, Orthica, Minami, AOV, Klean Athlete and Bountiful. Bountiful itself owns Solgar, Osteo Bi-Flex, Puritan’s Pride, Ester-C and Sundown, which are now all under Nestle’s control.

Otsuka, a pharmaceutical company, owns MegaFood and Innate Therapeutics; Schwabe, another pharmaceutical company, owns Integrative Therapeutics, Nature’s Way, and Enzymatic Therapy. Unilever owns Onnit, OLLY, Equilibra and Liquid I.V., and SmartyPants Vitamins. Wall Street is also getting in on the action, with private equity groups purchasing brands like Nutraceutical and Metagenics.

A number of these brands are not the high-quality supplements sought after by savvy natural health consumers. OLLY, bought by Uniliver, produces gummies that contain added sugar and additional added ingredients like natural flavors. Nuun, a vitamin and hydration company, uses inferior forms of vitamins (folic acid and magnesium oxide) in their products. SmartyPants Vitamins is another company specializing in gummies that includes 7 grams of added sugar per serving.

We also know that Nestle is developing its own line of enteral nutrition products. They have bought medications for the treatment of Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency due to cystic fibrosis, chronic pancreatitis and other conditions.

Several of these brands are higher quality supplement companies, such as Pure Encapsulations, Douglas Laboratories, MegaFood, and Metagenics. What will happen to them now that they are owned by mega-corporations that have not historically had core natural health principles as the foundation of their businesses? We’ve spoken to several of the largest and highest quality brands that have not been purchased; they have confirmed that larger companies have made several unsuccessful attempts to purchase them.

Suffice it to say, mega-corporations are increasingly expanding into the supplement space, probably because, aside from the reasons already mentioned, the supplement market is enormous and continues to grow. In 2021, the US supplement market was worth $48.4 billion, and it is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 8.9 percent. Where there’s money to be made, big players will want to cash in.

So, what does this mean for supplement access going forward?

Sen. Durbin’s Mandatory Product Listing for Supplements. We’ve been writing for many months about Senator Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) efforts to require mandatory product listing for dietary supplements, and how this brings us closer to what the European Union is doing to restrict supplement dosages and formulas. Recall that the intention of EU law is to implement EU-wide, harmonized limits on maximum levels of vitamins and minerals in supplements. Individual member countries have been developing their own proposed restrictions on vitamin and mineral doses. The infrastructure for doing the same thing is already in place in the US.

As we’ve seen in issues like GMO-labeling, where some states required labeling of GMO foods and others didn’t until federal law pre-empted state labeling laws, big companies don’t like dealing with a patchwork of regulations. Mega-corporations doing business across the world would likely welcome harmonized levels of supplements so they can sell their products on the world market without having to change formulations or labels. Higher-end products would be eliminated because they wouldn’t meet the “harmonized” nutrient levels, and all that would be left are the most basic, cookie-cutter products that don’t support patient needs but make the most money—think of the supplements you see at CVS, or Walgreen’s, etc.

So, Nestle owning Douglas Labs and Pure Encapsulations may not mean any change in quality for now, but that could all change if Sen. Durbin gets his way. If we’re marching toward harmonized supplement levels, Nestle may decide that quality formulas from these two companies aren’t worth the trouble: they may not make enough money, and/or they don’t meet the harmonized criteria. Or, if the products aren’t eliminated altogether, we could see the development of a two-tiered system: cookie-cutter supplements with low doses that can’t support health, and prescription-level supplements that cost a fortune. Either way, consumers lose.

The FDA’s “New Dietary Ingredient” (NDI) Guidance. This is another issue we’ve been reporting on over many years. Simply put, the FDA is trying to install a quasi pre-approval system for “new” supplements—those introduced to the market after 1994. In its revised guidance document explaining how they intend to implement this provision of the law, the FDA has signaled its intention to treat many, many common supplements as “new” and thus subject to the onerous NDI requirements before they can come to market. Note that the law passed by Congress only calls for a premarket notification system for “new” supplements, but the FDA has tried to usurp power to turn this into a premarket approval system like the one they have for drugs. An economic analysis estimated that, if implemented as is, the NDI guidance could lead to the elimination of over 41,000 products from store shelves.

While complying with NDI procedures could be onerous for many small, independent companies, large corporations can “pay to play.” In fact, the NDI guidance could be seen by big corporations owning supplement brands as a blessing, as it would wipe the market clear of many competitors, especially the small, nimble companies making innovative formulas that the FDA would most likely consider “new.”

Here’s an alternative scenario: big companies who are beholden to shareholders are often chasing short term profits. So, if you’re Nestle, you buy a quality brand like Pure Encapsulations, and just a couple of years later all those supplements need to comply with a bevy of new regulatory requirements, you might just decide that it is more trouble than it’s worth and close up shop—after all, Pure Encapsulations and Douglas Labs make up a tiny fraction of Nestle’s overall business. They may just be trying to make money on these quality brands while they can and toss them aside when it becomes too expensive. Or maybe there are fewer good brands left standing, which causes sharp increases in prices as we see with drug monopolies.  Or maybe the big drug companies that own supplement brands would rather sell diabetes drugs than the supplements required to control blood sugar, or statins rather than omega-3’s for heart health.

We should also recognize that mega-corporations like those in the pharmaceutical industry and Big Food wield much more power and influence over the political and regulatory system than small, innovative supplement companies. Now that these companies are buying up supplement companies, will that mean they will use their clout to block further regulation of supplements to protect those revenue streams—or do they still view supplements as competition for their drugs, which are far more profitable?

Much of this is speculation—we don’t know what’s going to happen. But overall, this level of consolidation isn’t good for competition, because just a small number of companies can make decisions that affect our supplement access, and many of them do not share the values of small, independent companies who go into business to fill a need in the natural health sector. Issues over quality of supplements and access to higher dosages become the decision of a smaller and smaller contingent of companies—this is not good from a health freedom standpoint.

A lot of this analysis highlights the fact that we need to stop Sen. Durbin from getting his way on mandatory product listing for supplements. See our related article for an update on mandatory product listing, and if you haven’t already you can take action there.

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10 thoughts on “Big Pharma Buying Up Supplement Companies

  • I.M. Pistoff

    “Natural / alternative” health products have been a mixed bag for decades, with a lot of substandard ‘bandwagon’ products on the market, many of which are little if any better than mainstream junk; there has always been a need for education and caution in what one uses. Big business ownership actually makes it easier to weed out a lot of what you don’t want.

  • Kathryn

    Damn them .
    I know how I feel when I’m on my supplements routines vs when I’m not. It’s how I feel….not about how they think I should feel. They don’t know a damn thing about me. They just want to control my life? Is that it? Jerks.

  • Nanc

    Sorry to see the Pure brand fall into nestles hands. As for the others they are not the best to start with except for maybe Garden life.
    It’s time to be vigilant and do your research before buying.
    The bottom line here is Big Harma wants you beholden to them only and will stop at nothing to poison you.
    Do not let your guard down even for a second, choose your supplements wisely and fight for them.

  • Ronald C Coffman

    This article simply proves what I have believed for years; that these supplement companies were only in it for profits, rather than helping people stay healthy. If it were otherwise, they would not have sold. With competition from supplement divisions of large pharmaceutical companies, it is likely that the smaller companies will start cutting corners to stay profitable. Perhaps the better answer is to reduce the need for supplements altogether. The only way to do that is to make our foods healthier and more nutritious, and the only way to do that is to demand that Congress pass legislation banning all the chemicals already banned in Europe, and then make artificial fertilizers, usually made from natural gas, illegal as well. If we composted the huge amounts of organic waste we produce, and spread that compost on our fields, we could have nutritious foods again. Banning the toxins we spray on them would make them healthier.

  • Irene Cecile

    any chance you would have a complete list I could have on hand…this is beyong sick, it is frightening…what have they put in them?

  • Bruce

    Thanks for this very informative article. We used to buy Garden of Life when Jordan Rubin owned it (original owner), but then he sold the brand and started creating products with Dr. Axe, an “Ancient Nutrition” line. A similar thing happened with the “Tom’s of Maine” brand some years back when I believe Colgate bought them out. We only buy supplements from conscious small companies like Truvani, for example, where Vani Hari’s line is all organic-based. Naked Nutrition (raw powders like goat’s milk) and PaleoValley (organic grass-fed beef and turkey) as a few more examples. These companies give discounts often and usually have “subscriber” plans that save you additional money to make it more affordable. Thrive Market is our go-to online kitchen staple company for mostly organic food choices from mostly up-and-coming small, independent brands trying to get a foothold in the consumer market.

    If you look up “big food corporations” and look at the charts, you can see how a handful of corporations control almost all of the corporate branded food industry, as noted in the graphic in the article. The usual suspects of Pepsico, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Nestle, Mondelez, General Mills, Kellogg’s, etc. We must continue to support the small organic farms and small, independent brands if we want to avoid all of the toxic chemicals that these big corporations love to use to keep their costs down at the expense of the consumer’s health. Support your local organic farms as well. These corporations are in bed with chemical company giants like Bayer (formerly Monsanto) that push toxic gmo’s and glyphosate poisoning as well as msg and other harmful chemicals to our endocrine systems and immune systems to name a few. For example, msg (monosodium glutamate) acts as an excitotoxin to open up your taste palette at the expense of eating away at your brain. These corporations revel in gmo wheat, corn, rice, sugar and many others including toxic high fructose corn syrup and other fake sugars. Until we stop buying their toxic food products, they will continue to produce them. BigAg, BigFood and BigChemical are at the roots and our politicians just line their own pockets in supporting them.

  • gin

    Satan wants to control the world, and this is one step in that direction. God is still in complete control, but will allow Satan’s progression because people don’t want God, who alone is good, to rule them. The end times are here. The verse in 2Timothy, chapter 3 describes peoples behavior in end times, and that has happened quickly. The bible says a time will come when people will shake their fist at God because of extreme heat. That is nearing. Amazingly, the bible speaks of deep ocean springs which humans only discovered in the last 60 years or so. The ground was separated from water, which is still the biggest part of the planet was spoken of in the beginning of Genesis. Consciousness of inanimate objects, “Christ said if the people were silenced, the rocks would cry out”. Amazing things that have happened lately, the Tonga volcano that shot 50 olympic pools of water into the stratosphere, and an underground tsunami 1500 miles from a large earthquake. Unless people want to be ruled by evil for eternity, they must ask Christ to save them.

  • Linda Ferland

    Holy Crap–Natures Way & Solgar, too! The Big Pharma Monopoly has begun! Thoroughly disgusting & scary!

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