But that’s exactly what a new initiative led by the International Alliance of Dietary/Food Supplement Associations (IADSA), the global association for the food supplement sector, seeks to do.
IADSA, whose goal is to cultivate a responsible supplement culture across the industry, recently launched its Influencer Hub, an online resource collating guidelines from around the world that are pertinent to influencers.
The tool is intended to “facilitate access to national rules governing social media influencers and help ensure transparency, accountability, and ethical conduct in their activities”.
Simon Pettman, executive director of IADSA, told Vitafoods Insights: “We know the business of influence is growing, it’s thriving, and many consumers trust the recommendations…
“We couldn't see anywhere where you could find these influencer practices in one place, certainly not in the supplement world – certainly in any world. So we thought: let's put it together and build some kind of resource that's going to be useful and hopefully support our sector as it grows.”
It follows conversations with governments that show they are also recognising this “evolution” in influencer culture, he explained.
“It is something that the governments are looking at, we're looking at, and jointly we need to work together to… ensure that the rules and practices that exist are followed,” he said.
Inspired by influencers: Berberine and aspartame among ingredients trending on social media
The initiative could not be timelier, with the impact of social media and influencer culture being played out not only across industry news but in international headlines.
Last year, sales of berberine spiked after the supplement took TikTok by storm, with thousands of videos claiming to document weight loss from taking what social media users dubbed “nature’s Ozempic”.
The craze shows no sign of slowing down; at the end of 2023, the hashtag #berberine had received more than 109.5M views on TikTok.
But what authority do the influencers behind these videos have to make such claims? And even if they do, where do their commercial interests lie?
Last summer, when the World Health Organization (WHO) raised questions about the risks of aspartame, The Washington Post reported how registered dietitians were using the hashtag #safetyofaspartame to refute the claims – without making clear that they were being paid to do so by American Beverage, a trade and lobbying group representing Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and other companies.
Cynthia Rousselot, director of regulatory and technical affairs at IADSA, emphasised the global reach of influencers and highlighted how purchasing behaviours have changed in the wake of the pandemic.
Ultimately, if you promote a product, “whether it's a cosmetic, a food supplement, whatever… you have also a responsibility as an advocate of a product”, she said.
The business of influencing: What are the guidelines for social media figures?
What exists in terms of guidelines for social media influencers? When it comes to dietary supplements, not a lot.
Rousselot said the guidelines collated by IADSA were not specific to the food supplement category, but rather “about the business of influencers, so they are focusing primarily on ensuring that if it's a commercial communication, consumers are well aware that it is commercial communication”.
However, there is a lack of information regarding how influencers can ensure compliance with regulations, she said.
Pettman described IADSA’s “groundbreaking” decision to invite a nutrition influencer to its annual week in Copenhagen.
This individual knew about nutrition and understood the obligations around “influencer practice”, but “probably needed more information just around simple supplement regulation”, he said.
“We have to communicate, of course, to the influencers, there are all these guidelines… a whole series of rules around what you can say about supplements, the ingredients you can sell in supplements, which are very relevant to them,” he said.
But it is also crucial to communicate with the companies who work with those influencers to prevent a disconnect, he argued.
“There is a process where the influencers need to understand that but also the companies who are using influencers need to understand that … there has to be a degree of accountability,” he said.
Not all influencers are created equal: Bringing consistency to the model
Scrupulous influencers are as outraged by individuals who make false or inflated claims as the broader nutraceutical industry, Pettman said, as was evident from conversations with the influencer invited to IADSA’s annual week.
“The influencers who just come in, sell a product, make claims which are not in conformity, and then move on to another product – she feels that damages the credibility of what she's doing,” he explained.
He added: “We know [from] talking to, let's say, some of the more specialist influencers that they have also frustrations sometimes with other influencers. They're doing their best to follow the rules and maybe they feel others aren't … [G]radually we hope to build this sort of consensus.”
Rousselot said: “Our goal at the end is also to make sure that all these new channels – whether this is going to be influencers, e-commerce – are fair for everyone.
“Because you have companies that are very responsible and they are really complying, but what we do not want is a kind of two-speed [model, with] some people really following and [other] influencers who do not really understand.”
Future research hoped to uncover influencer insights
IADSA has commissioned research with Ipsos Mori to better understand the influencer environment “at the global level”, looking particularly at regional and cultural variations.
“We want to understand the similarities and where there are differences and how we can bring consistencies,” said Rousselot.
Pettman added: “We know there are variations between countries – but surely just by helping to build greater alignment of these practices, we're also going to help ensure good practice.”
For now, he said, “we're kind of seeing where this goes. But we know we have to do it, for everybody's sake – for the industry, for the governments, for influencers … and particularly for the consumers”.