What information do consumers need about food supplements?

Herbal mixtures to combat obesity, protein powder to build muscle, vitamin C to strengthen the immune system - there is a very broad offering of pills, powders and capsules. Consumers generally tend to prescribe themselves vitamins, minerals and plant extracts without consulting a doctor. It is frequently the case that the purchase decision is made irrespective of whether the preparations are food supplements, i.e. foods or over-the-counter medicinal products. Experts suspect that most of the purchasers do not need these products from the medical angle. In some cases there is even a risk of an overdose of specific substances. "We don’t know what prompts consumers to take supplements or how they find out about the ingredients", says Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, President of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). A BfR research project now aims to determine which consumer groups take supplements and similar products. Based on this, specific communication concepts are to be developed on the health benefits and risks of these preparations for the respective groups.

The study entitled “Target group-driven risk communication on supplements” will run up to February 2010 and consists of four phases. Initially, an analysis of the actual situation drawing on various data sources will seek to clarify which consumers use these preparations, for what reasons and their intake of them. Furthermore, it will identify the amount of information consumers seek out on these products and how they go about this. It will focus not only on food supplements but also on over-the-counter medicinal products and dietetic foods which are available in retail outlets, via direct distribution or on the Internet.

The analysis of the actual situation will lead to defined groups of consumers of these products. In a second phase representatives of these groups will discuss their consumption and their information behaviour in four focus groups. The results of the focus groups will be examined and supplemented in the third phase of the project by a representative population survey.

In an ensuing workshop a total of 80 representatives of sports associations, public authorities, monitoring bodies, other public institutions, consumer organisations, manufacturers’ associations, science, the media and pharmacists’ chambers will elaborate specific communication concepts on the risks and benefits of food supplements for three target groups. This will lead to proposals for concrete risk communication measures.

BfR’s project partners are the Katalyse Institute for Applied Environmental Research Cologne, GfK Health Care Nuremberg, Germany Sport University Cologne and the South German Institute for Empirical Social Research (sine) Munich.

The project is accompanied by a scientific advisory board that comprises representatives of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices, the Max Rubner Institute, the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety, the Federal Centre for Health Education and the aid Information Service on Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture. Its constitutive meeting was held in Berlin in parallel to the launch of the project.

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