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A Test Of Consumers Shows They Don’t Totally Understand The Supplements They Are Taking

Original survey data from The Unwinder points to a disconnect between wellness consumers and an evidence-based approach to wellness, and suggests that marketing hype can be confused for supplement effectiveness.

In May and June, we surveyed a representative sample of U.S. consumers*. Our first four questions asked about familiarity and use of four popular categories of wellness supplements: adaptogens, probiotics, CBD, and nootropics.

Then, we asked questions that tested respondents’ actual knowledge of these supplements. For example, “Which of the following supplements help people manage stress?”. If the respondent answered ‘caffeine’, yet had previously reported that they were familiar with adaptogens or CBD, we would know there was a disconnect between what they believed and what is actually true.

Results: High Claims Of Familiarity With Supplements; Mixed Results When Tested On Knowledge

Overall, our respondents expressed significant familiarity with the four categories of wellness products, with about half in each category reporting that they’re  “very familiar” with, and “use regularly” the supplements in question.

Chart showing high levels of familiarity with supplement-types professed by respondents
High levels of familiarity with supplement-types professed by respondents

However, when we tested respondents on common  use-cases of the same supplements, 42% of all answers were clearly wrong. We presented a list of supplements for each particular “use-case” – sleep, stress, cognitive performance, mood-boosting, and digestive health. Each list contained at least one supplement that is well-known and evidence-backed for that use-case, alongside supplements that have either limited evidence, no evidence, or are actively harmful for that use-case. This latter bit constitutes a wrong answer; for example, citing caffeine as a sleep aid.

Responses to what supplements are best as a sleep aid, showing a high percentage of correct answers, alongside a significant aggregation of incorrect answers.
Responses to what supplements are best as a sleep aid, showing a high percentage of correct answers, alongside a significant aggregation of incorrect answers.

Determining what is evidence-backed fell on The Unwinder’s editorial team, whose day-to-day is reviewing wellness product claims against the outstanding scientific research.

While respondents performed fairly well correctly identifying sleep aids and stress management supplements, while avoiding obviously wrong answers, these same consumers were more confused about supplements for cognitive performance, digestive health, and mood boosting.

Overall "Correct" and "Incorrect" responses from respondents
Overall “Correct” and “Incorrect” responses from respondents

CBD is the most popular choice for stress management, and the broad way “stress” can be defined makes this question an open one. For example, a respondent might have gastrointestinal issues, which cause them stress, and therefore make probiotics a solution to stress. More likely, though, is that they have read not-yet-scientifically-validated mainstream news about the “mind-gut” connection, and interpreted this as meaning probiotics are stress-reducers. Caffeine is known to elevate cortisol levels and produce a stress-like state.

Study responses matching popular wellness supplements for managing stress.
Study responses matching popular wellness supplements for managing stress.

Responses were all over the place regarding cognitive performance. The current state of research suggests that caffeine is the most potent enhancer of cognitive performance.

Responses to "cognitive performance" question.
Responses to “cognitive performance” question.

Probiotics are a well-known, common-use supplement often recommended by doctors. Here we see either a CBD halo effect, or general cluelessness. While there is modest evidence for cannabis for treating nausea, the best of our knowledge is that THC is the main anti-nausea chemical.

Responses show a strong recognition of probiotics as a helpful supplement for digestive health.
Responses show a strong recognition of probiotics as a helpful supplement for digestive health.

The mood-booster with the strongest research-backing is 5-HTP. (This backing is on a pathway basis at this point, as one major and important study on 5-HTP was retracted last year.) This may be another example of the CBD halo effect, and perhaps similarly so for probiotics (as discussed above, a popular overstatement of the “mind-gut” connection).

Respondents vote CBD the top mood booster, despite more effective and pathway-specific mood boosters available.
Respondents vote CBD the top mood booster, despite more effective and pathway-specific mood boosters available.

Discussion: Supplement “Hype” Leads To Over-Belief Of Efficacy

It’s crucial to note that the test questions were “check all that apply”. Our goal was to learn how well consumers’ understanding of different wellness supplements aligned with our understanding of where on the evidence-based spectrum each of these supplements fit, for different use-cases. 

For example, 60.5% of respondents correctly identified probiotics as a helpful supplement for digestive health. However, 39.5% also selected melatonin as a helpful digestive health supplement, despite the fact that there is no research or pathway-based evidence for melatonin as a digestive aid. In sum, only 21.8% of total supplements selected were correct for the digestive health question.

There are a few explanations for this. One is that because parts of the wellness industry either have low evidentiary standards for their claims, or are less-than-scrupulous in promoting products that don’t work, the consumer has taken on this confusion and “over-believes” in supplements.

For example, respondents highly overrated CBD, which came in as the most chosen supplement for sleep, stress, cognitive performance, and mood-boosting, and second most chosen supplement for digestive health. There is interesting science behind CBD, but no serious wellness practitioner would claim CBD is the best supplement for everything. The CBD hype train is causing people to believe CBD is the right supplement for everything, at the expense of other, better-studied and suited products. This effect seems to persist across all the more popular supplement products—melatonin, probiotics, and to a lesser extent, ashwagandha.

If we sort only by people who said they were “very familiar” or “familiar” with all four of our supplement categories (CBD, adaptogens, probiotics, nootropics), we do get slightly better results:

People saying they are "very familiar" or "familiar" with all four supplement categories do respond slightly more in-line with research-based evidence.
People saying they are “very familiar” or “familiar” with all four supplement categories do respond slightly more in-line with research-based evidence.

Women answered better than men. Across our five “test” questions, women selected the correct response 12% more often than men. Amusingly, men professed to be “very familiar” with the supplements in question at more than double the rate of women.

For further discussion of study results or further inquiries into the data, email hello@the-unwinder.com.

*Pollfish uses a method called Random Device Engagement with Organic Sampling, surveying people randomly, in organic contexts, based on their unique device IDs as matched to an authentic person, and statistically correcting for ways in which people who respond to surveys can be different than those who don’t. N=200.

About the author

Holden Desalles is a journalist in the new wellness space, covering topics such as CBD, adaptogens, and nootropics. He was formerly a staff writer at the millennial lifestyle website Thought Catalog.

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