Dietary Supplement Use in Women:
Current Status and Future Directions
Dietary Supplement Use in Women: The Role of the Media1
Sylvia Rowe2 and Cheryl Toner
International Food Information Council (IFIC) and IFIC Foundation, Washington, DC 20036
Women and other consumers obtain information on supplements from a variety of sources, including
health professionals, but most frequently the media. Although scienti?c conclusions are methodically scrutinized, news
stories are judged by instant appeal. Dietary supplements add a complicating twist because folkloric use predates
scienti?c research by thousands of years. The incongruity between science and the media perpetuates misinformation
and fails to provide the context that gives scienti?c research meaning. The International Food Information Council (IFIC)
and the IFIC Foundation3 seek to bridge the practice and the communication of science. The IFIC Foundation’s biannual
analysis of food news revealed that in 1999 and 2001, science experts were the primary source of information for articles
but context was often absent or incomplete. The media’s major obstacle in communicating science is a lack of
understanding of the scienti?c process. It is imperative that emerging science is meaningfully translated for the public.
The Harvard School of Public Health and IFIC Foundation convened an advisory group in 1997 to examine the
communications process. The result was a set of questions meant to guide the communications process: Will your
communication enhance public understanding of diet and health? Have you put the study ?ndings into context? Have
the ?ndings been peer reviewed? Have you disclosed the important facts about the study? Have you disclosed all key
information about the study’s ?ndings? The advisory group agreed that funding sources should be disclosed but that
?ndings ought to stand on their own merit. In addition, guidelines for various speci?c communicators were created.
Nutr. 133: 2008S–2009S, 2003.
KEY WORDS: ? supplement ? nutrition ? emerging science ? communications ? media
Participants in the workshop Dietary Supplement Use in
prove the ability of science and policy communicators to by on August 11, 2009
Women learned that women of varied backgrounds have been
improve public understanding.
using dietary supplements for many generations to optimize
The health effects of supplements is only one of the many
health, prevent illness and even self-treat disease. Consumers
scienti?c issues needing responsible communications. When any
obtain information on supplements from a variety of sources,
scienti?c study is concluded, it is unlikely that its ?ndings will be
including health professionals, but most frequently from the
the ?nal word on a subject. Rather, scienti?c conclusions and the
media. A good understanding of the role the media plays in
methods used to reach them are deliberately and methodically
conveying health, food and supplement information will im-
scrutinized for their accuracy, validity, reliability and applicabil-
ity. Conversely, news stories are judged by their instant appeal—
the effect of a headline or the allure of a sound bite. Scientists
may view the practicality of a speci?c study’s conclusion much
From the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conference “Dietary Supplement
Use in Women: Current Status and Future Directions” held on January 28 –29, 2002,
differently from those who report the information to the public.
in Bethesda, MD. The conference was sponsored by the National Institute of Child
Dietary supplements add a complicating twist to the communi-
Health and Human Development and the Of?ce of Dietary Supplements, NIH, U.S.
cations mix because folkloric use and motherly advice on use
Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and was cosponsored by the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration Of?ce of
predate scienti?c research by thousands of years. This incongruity
Women’s Health, NIH Of?ce of Research on Women’s Health, National Institute of
between science and the media not only perpetuates misinforma-
Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases Division of Nutrition Research Coordi-
tion but also fails to provide the wider context that gives single
nation, DHHS; National Center for Complementary Medicine, U.S. Department of
Agriculture Agricultural Research Service; International Life Sciences Institute North
scienti?c conclusions their meaning.
America; March of Dimes; and Whitehall Robbins Healthcare. Conference proceed-
To meet this communications challenge, the International
ings were published in a supplement to The Journal of Nutrition. Guest editors for this
Food Information Council (IFIC) seeks to bridge the gaps
workshop were Mary Frances Picciano, Of?ce of Dietary Supplements, NIH, DHHS;
Daniel J. Raiten, Of?ce of Prevention Research and International Programs, National
between how science is practiced and how science is commu-
Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, DHHS; and Paul M. Coates,
nicated to opinion leaders (those who have in?uence with
Of?ce of Dietary Supplements, NIH, DHHS.
consumers). IFIC’s mandate is to facilitate communication
To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: rowe@i?c.org.
3 The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation is the educational
among the media and other communicators so that consumers
arm of IFIC. IFIC’s mission is to communicate science-based information on food
are given an appropriate context for science-based informa-
safety and nutrition to health and nutrition professionals, educators, journalists,
tion. Although IFIC is supported primarily by the broad-based
government of?cials and others providing information to consumers. IFIC is sup-
ported primarily by the broad-based food, beverage and agricultural industries.
food, beverage and agricultural industries, it does not lobby nor
0022-3166/03 $3.00 © 2003 American Society for Nutritional Sciences.
THE ROLE OF THE MEDIA
does it have a policy charge. The IFIC Foundation is the
need, the IFIC Foundation has worked with science and
educational arm of IFIC and further helps the media, educa-
health communicators to determine how best to provide sci-
tors, health professionals and scientists effectively communi-
entists and experts with an understanding of their critical role
cate nutrition and food safety to the public.
in the communications process and a level of comfort in
Providing the bridge between scienti?c research and com-
providing context when speaking with journalists.
munication with the public is particularly relevant because
To address these contextual challenges, the Harvard School of
consumers are consulting a widening variety of sources for
Public Health and the IFIC Foundation convened an advisory
health and nutrition advice—sources that can sometimes be
group to examine the communications process. The group in-
confusing and contradictory. The American Dietetic Associ-
cluded scientists from Harvard and Tufts University, medical
ation’s trends survey shows that journalists are the primary
journal editors, professional interest group and food industry rep-
deliverers of health and nutrition information to consumers
resentatives, and practicing journalists. The advisory board was
(1). Forty-eight percentage of consumers polled in the 2000
chaired by Timothy Johnson, the ABC News medicine and
survey said that they received their health news from televi-
health editor. The committee was charged with devising practical
sion (down from 57% in the 1997 survey); magazines and
guidelines for interpreting and reporting science-based informa-
newspapers follow at 47 and 18%, respectively. Family, friends,
tion for all players in the communications process.
books, physicians, the Internet and the radio are also key
Early in the deliberations, the advisory group realized that
information sources. The American Dietetic Association sur-
just as there is a food chain, there is a communications chain.
vey also examined the value of nutrition information sources.
On one end is the scientist, who interprets science as it
At least 90% of those surveyed said they placed the most value
emerges, and at the other end of the chain is the journalist,
on information from doctors, registered dietitians and nutri-
who is the visible deliverer of the information. Scientists and
tionists followed by magazines (87%), nurses (85%), newspa-
journalists are linked by a number of other key stakeholders,
pers (82%) and television news (79%).
including journal editors, public information of?cers and pub-
Consumers are often confused by what they hear in the media
lic relations professionals, consumer groups, special interest Downloaded from
about health information. A 1997 report by the National Health
groups and food industry groups. All of these stakeholders play
Council noted that 68% of survey participants agreed with the
a critical role in how scienti?c information reaches the public.
statement, “When reporting medical and health news, the media
What resulted from this joint Harvard–IFIC Foundation
often contradict themselves, so I don’t know what to believe.”
advisory group was a set of questions meant to guide all groups
(2). Also in 1997, the Food Marketing Institute reported that 8 of
in the communications process: Will your communication
10 consumers think that it is very or somewhat likely “the
enhance public understanding of diet and health? Have you jn.nutrition.org
experts” will have a completely different idea about which foods
put the study ?ndings into context? Have the ?ndings been
are healthy and which are not within the next 5 years (3).
peer reviewed? Have you disclosed the important facts about
Research conducted by Princeton Research Associates for Rodale
the study? Have you disclosed all key information about the
Press highlighted which health stories consumers ?nd the most
study’s ?ndings? The advisory group paid particular attention
confusing. Stories about vitamins and supplements top the list
to the role of funding sources and agreed that they should be by on August 11, 2009
followed by nutrition stories (4). Consumers ?nd it dif?cult to
disclosed when reporting a study’s results but that the ?ndings
distinguish between public-interest trivia and information that
ought to stand on their own merit. In addition to the general
actually warrants behavioral change.
guidelines, the advisory group created a checklist of guiding
Every two years the IFIC Foundation commissions the
principles for each group in the communications chain, in-
Center for Media and Public Affairs to conduct an in-depth
cluding scientists, journal editors, journalists, industry, and
qualitative and quantitative analysis of food news to determine
consumer and other interest groups (6).
the popular media issues that reach consumers (5). In 2001
Johnson summarized the relevance of these guidelines, say-
coverage of diet, health, nutrition and food safety issues was
ing, “These guidelines can only make a difference if they don’t
15% less than two years before. However, there was still a 15%
sit on a shelf. Putting these recommendations into practice
increase in coverage in 2001 compared with 1995. The IFIC
just might make a difference in the public’s understanding of
Foundation also found that during the three months of cov-
diet and health. I urge you to read them, share them, remem-
erage analyzed, science experts and researchers were the pri-
ber them and use them. After all, I think what the public
mary source of information for the media. This indicates that
wants is for us to be honest with each study as it comes along
reporters and editors are consulting experts in order to put new
and try to put it into perspective but keep reminding people
?ndings into the context of scienti?c literature on a subject.
that it’s the totality of the evidence as it unfolds that warrants
The media’s reliance on scienti?c experts also underscores the
role that each scientist and professional can play in helping to
interpret science for the public.
The media’s major obstacle in communicating science is a
lack of understanding of the scienti?c process itself, especially
1. American Dietetic Association. Americans’ Food and Nutrition Attitudes and
among writers without science backgrounds. Journalists with
Behaviors—American Dietetic Association’s Nutrition and You: Trends
Available at http://www.eatright.com/pr/2000/010300a.html. Viewed on May 7, 2002.
science backgrounds may better understand that every new
2. Roper Starch
Americans Talk About Science and Medical News.
study is not necessarily news but rather part of a larger process
The National Health Council, Washington, DC.
of discovery and debate. To a general assignment reporter who
3. Food Marketing Institute and Prevention Magazine
Health. Food Marketing Institute, Washington, DC.
may not understand this process, each new study may seem to
4. Princeton Survey Research Associates
USA Snapshots: Con-
provide newsworthy information and potential headlines. For
fusing Health News. Princeton Survey Research Associates, Princeton, NJ.
example, the information presented at this workshop showed
5. Center for Media And Public Affairs, International Food Information Council
Food For Thought IV: A Quantitative and Qualitative Con-
how continued research has the potential to affect individuals.
tent Analysis of Diet, Nutrition and Food Safety Reporting. International Food
However, no single health message will apply to all individu-
Information Council Foundation, Washington, DC.
als. Therefore, it is imperative that the emerging and ongoing
6. Fineberg, H. V. & Rowe, S. B.
Improving public understanding:
science discussed at the workshop be translated in a way that
guidelines for communicating emerging science on nutrition, food safety, and
health for journalists, scientists, and other communicators. J. Natl. Cancer Inst.
ultimately makes it meaningful to the public. Recognizing this
90(3): 194 –199.