The quiet potential of supplements and fortified foods

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The quiet potential of supplements and fortified foods
What do companies like Vitamin Shoppe, Johnson & Johnson, DSM, Whole Foods, NBTY and even Pfizer have in common?

The answer is that they have all found a way to do what many other well-intentioned firms in the nutrition industry have not been able to: They have joined the battle against malnutrition.

In today’s business world, ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ (CSR) has become a buzz-phrase. But in the race to find ways to demonstrate how ‘aware’ we are of the world’s problems, we must not lose sight of what it really means to be socially responsible, and where each business can have the greatest impact.

When it comes to CSR, improving nutrition – whether this involves combating obesity in the western world or fighting malnutrition in the developing world – is a privilege and responsibility unique to the nutrition industry.

Many firms in the industry already conduct their own programs that provide aid to areas afflicted by malnutrition. For example, rice bran supplier NutraCea distributes its nutrient-rich ingredient to populations in need via food programs around the globe.

However, it is not easy to set up the logistical framework necessary to get nutritional aid where it needs to go. But this is a minor obstacle, not a dead-end, and the companies mentioned at the start of this article have all found the same way around it.

Together with over 300 other US firms, they have decided to donate part of their products or their profits to a discreet group that has come to be known as the humanitarian arm of the natural products industry – the Vitamin Angels Alliance.

Vitamin angels-logo
Thomas Aarts, who is on the Vitamin Angels board of directors, tells Lorraine Heller about some of the group’s major programs and the impact they are having. Click on the image to listen.

Industry support

Over the years, Vitamin Angels has gathered support from all areas of the nutrition industry. These include ingredients firms (e.g. National Enzyme Company, Pharmachem), contract manufacturers (e.g. Capsugel), supplement or food manufacturers (e.g. Procaps, Nature's Way, Now Foods), retailers (e.g. Whole Foods, GNC), trade groups (e.g. CRN, UNPA) and other organizations that provide services to the food industry (e.g. investment bank Canaccord Adams, market researcher Spins).

The major focus of this group, founded 15 years ago by a veteran of the supplements industry, is to provide basic nutrition to malnourished children around the world.

Through the different programs that Vitamin Angels has set up, it has helped millions of children in countries around the world (25m in the past four years alone) – by preventing blindness caused by lack of vitamin A; rickets (a disabling bone softening condition) caused by lack of vitamin D and calcium; even death from seemingly mild conditions such as measles or diarrhea, which a low immune system lacking vitamin A and other micronutrients cannot withstand.

Consumers get it

To some readers, these will – sadly – just be statistics that have been heard many times before. That is where consumer preference can play a powerful role, as humanitarian support and brand building often go hand in hand.

Figures published over the past decade suggest that for 92 percent of consumers it is important for companies to contribute to nonprofits. Almost 90 percent back this up with their purchasing power, saying they would switch to a brand affiliated with a good cause if price and quality were equal.

Unlike some other aid organizations, Vitamin Angels has inspired long-term commitment from its supporting companies and individuals because the difference it generates is immediate, quantifiable and – crucially – easy for consumers to grasp.

“It’s a very tangible concept and our customers really understand where their money is going. The Vitamin Angels programs have a very focused cost per person, and consumers know that through not a lot of cost they can reach a lot of people,”​ said Brett Schulman of Snikiddy, which manufactures nutritional snacks for children and donates 1 percent of all product sales to Vitamin Angels.

Little cost – big impact

The figure most frequently cited by Vitamin Angels as it is so shockingly minute is $0.25 per child per year, which can provide two high-dose vitamin A capsules that would prevent blindness. Twenty-fivecents​.

One bottle of children’s multivitamins taken over a year rejuvenated a four year-old child in Tibet from a coma-like state (he had never been able to walk, talk or feed himself) to a dancing, singing five year-old.

“Whatever you thought about vitamins before, it’ll be dramatically different when you see what they can do in situations of malnutrition,”​ says Howard Schiffer, the founder of Vitamin Angels.

The organization works in three main fields: Areas of poverty where there is no access to good food; areas hit by war or civil strife; and areas affected by natural disasters, where immediate needs are shelter, medicine and nutrition.

At a time when the supplements industry in the United States is battling to combat misleading marketing, product adulteration, or just to stay ahead of the next trend, Vitamin Angels is quietly using the dietary supplement as the most effective delivery system for transporting basic nutrition to people who desperately need it.

Logistics

Part of the reason for the high rates of industry involvement in Vitamin Angels is that the group provides the logistical framework necessary to move product around, which is not an easy task.

Even Howard Schiffer had initially been stumped as to how to ship products, clear customs and distribute them in the areas they needed to get to.

But with guidance from the right people – most notably Ellen Engleman, then of Direct Relief – and by setting up partnerships with on-the-ground organizations, Schiffer was able to create a highly workable relief system. Crucially (and in contrast to many other charities), Vitamin Angels has an overhead of less than 5 percent, which means over 95 percent of the funding it receives goes to its nutrition programs.

Companies wishing to contribute are able to do so either through product donations (key needs are multivitamins, prenatal supplements, vitamin A and vitamin C) or through monetary support (donating a percentage of sales, or setting up a $0.25 per sku promotion, for example).

Melody Harwood, from the scientific and regulatory consultancy firm Cantox, returned earlier this month from a Vitamin Angels project in Kenya, which distributed almost seven million doses of prenatal vitamins to women in the town of Eldoret.

“One of the slogans of Vitamin Angels is ‘Reaching the Unreachable’. Having been on one of these distribution trips I really see how much work needs to be done on the ground to reach the unreachable. Once you go there, you realize what it’s all about,”​ she said.

“It’s heart-breaking and heart-warming at the same time. It’s something I would drop everything else to be able to do again.”

For more information on the Vitamin Angels programs and how to donate, go to www.vitaminangels.org​.

Thomas Aarts, who is on the Vitamin Angels board of directors, tells Lorraine Heller about some of the group’s major programs and the impact they are having. To listen, click here​.

Lorraine Heller is editor of NutraIngredients-USA.com and a specialist writer on the food and supplements industries. If you would like to contact her, please write to lorraine.heller'at'decisionnews.com

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