Sol Orwell is the CEO of Examine.com, a website that is focused on bringing you informative and critical reviews of nutritional supplements. As part of “Supplement Week” here at RTS, I figured he would be an awesome person to interview.
And since he’s such a swell guy, Sol is putting the entire Examine.com product line on sale for RTS readers. You can find all the details on this below.
If you want or need to learn more about supplements, Sol is definitely your guy, so let’s get into this!
MR: Sol, thanks a ton for taking the time to be with us here today. Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?
SO: Thanks Mike – the pleasure is all mine!
My background is pretty simple – I immigrated to Canada when I was 14. I went to university for engineering (to keep my parents happy), and by the time I graduated, my Internet businesses were running smoothly on their own.
As I preferred adventure and travel over making money, I essentially retired, and then spent the next 5 years just traveling around in the US and South America.
I should note – from the start, all of my businesses have been built off of things I enjoyed. I used to be in online gaming – because I loved them.
I used to be in local search – because I found GIS so interesting (if you ever meet me in person, ask me about my Moby Dick project).
I used to be in daily deals because – well, there were so many companies that I built a simple aggregator for myself. I then released this to the public, and its peak, it was sending out over 50,000 emails/day.
I tend to build things for myself, and if others like it, open it up.
That’s quite the diverse background! So what got you into the fitness industry?
And in that some vein, what got you into nutrition and supplementation?
Once I got back to Toronto, I had gained a significant amount of weight. With an analytical mind set, I started to really dig into what worked and what didn’t.
Having quite a bit of spare time, I stumbled upon people like yourself and Eric (I’ve always had bum shoulders). The more I learned, the more hooked I got. Plus who knew losing weight would make you look better?
To be honest – I likely spend more time reading about exercise related stuff than nutrition, but that’s because I have my guys to constantly ping questions off of!
Okay let’s get a little bit more specific, as I’m interested in your origin story. What led you to start Examine.com?
Out of self-interest, and out of frustration.
At the end of the day, I just wanted to learn more. So I’d be researching about leptin … and after a few days of non-stop reading, I’d end up with even more questions.
The frustration aspect was that there are some really smart people posting on the various forums online, but once they dig into something and post, it’s forgotten over the next few days.
I really envisioned a general repository where these smart people could contribute their research and findings, and it would stay up to date – it wouldn’t be lost and never seen again.
Originally I suggested that my co-founder (Kurtis Frank) do it on his own, but that was out of his wheel house. So I asked him what his plans were – he was finishing up dietetics school (to become an RD), and was looking into doing his PhD. I told him to forget his PhD – that could happen whenever. We had a chance to do something cool!
Since then (it’s been nearly 4 years), we’ve had a great partnership. He looks over the research, and I take care of everything else. Or well – took. Kamal’s now involved in running everything while I’ve gone back to just relaxing!
This is probably along the same lines, but what is the goal of Examine.com? Or what do you hope to achieve via the website?
Honestly – originally it was to both serve as a repository of knowledge, and also to needle supplement companies.
I myself was a sucker too – I spent so much money on supplements when I first started to figure out my health. So it felt nice to kind of get back at them for all their bs!
With that said, our goal is pretty simple now: We want to collate information, and make it accessible.
That means a multi-faceted approach – we have our Examine.com Research Digest (ERD) for professionals.
We have our Stack Guides for the layperson (when creating them, the central question we always asked ourselves was: “would our mom understand this?).
And of course, our free site continues to grow, and it’s always a challenge to balance making it both accessible, but also keeping the nuanced science there for people who want to dig.
Most importantly though – we want to do this in an unbiased way. No advertisers, no sponsors, no donors. Our customers (15,000+ and counting) are our base, and that gives us incredibly freedom to pursue knowledge.
That’s awesome, and I love to see that you guys are trying to force a little bit of accountability.
So here’s what I’m interested in – it seems like everyone has an angle when it comes to supplements, and it’s not exactly the “cleanest” industry out there.
What makes you guys different or unique from other companies that attempt to review supplements?
So firstly is that unbiased independence I mentioned. We don’t have to kowtow to anybody. We can call out anyone – an individual, an organization, an idea. It’s the masses paying our bills, which gives us a level of freedom most organizations do not have.
No one who does the primary research is connected with any supplement or food company.
Secondly is the division of work and the breadth of it. While I own the company, and Kamal runs it, Kurtis helps lead the research (and has editors).
Our primary two editors – one of them has a biomedical PhD, and the other has a pharmD (doctorate equivalent for pharmacists) gives us a ton of breadth and depth while keeping external influence to a bay.
Thirdly is our openness. Every single revision we’ve ever committed to any supplement page is public. And there have been over 20,000 editors – from correcting typos to massive additions. We could never hide any bias because it would be easily exposed.
Fourthly – the guys doing the research are nerds. And I say that with as much love as possible! Too many people with a non-scientific background try to do this, and then realize that reading research is more than just reading abstracts. Data and methodology is not easy.
Very, very cool – and that’s why I love you guys!
The Supplement Goals Resource Guide you all created is one of the most informative resources I’ve ever seen in the fitness industry. What prompted you to create it? And how long exactly did it take to pull together?
Thanks for the kind words!
I have to go again with need. There was a need for a quick reference to pull up all this information. There was a need to cut through the crap and say “listen – these are the human studies on X. How can you claim X does Y?”
It’s hard to say how long it took us – because it’s still being updated! Our Supplement-Goals Reference has lifetime updates – and we’ve pushed a lot since we first released it. As long as we continue to research, it will keep being updated.
Tell us a little bit about your review process, and how things work. How do you guys go about reviewing a particular supplement?
The review process really starts with our users. We’re always getting emails from people asking for information on different topics, and sometimes the same topics come up over and over again. Some information junkies will send us studies to get our process rolling (for which we are eternally thankful).
When the actual review process starts, we pore over a ton of studies to find the most applicable ones – typically human trials, but sometimes other studies too. Kurtis has an encyclopedic knowledge of how different nutrients and supplements work, and this helps us understand how new research fits into existing knowledge.
After the findings of different studies are written up, we have two editors go over every single detail to see if anything needs changed or added. Then another layer of experts contributes to especially complex issues. The totality of evidence for a given supplement-outcome paring is graded, and then this process is iterated as new evidence comes to light.
As a professional, sometimes staying unbiased is very challenging. Do you find that being an issue?
I know that personally I don’t have a ton of faith in the supplement industry in general, so I wonder how you all put that aside to get high-quality, honest reviews?
We’re always getting emails from (typically well-meaning) companies and organizations asking for partnerships. Every time, we have to reiterate that our mission involves an extreme amount of objectivity.
No product samples, no advertising, no anything.
When it comes to studies, it’s a reality of the research game that many studies will be funded by manufacturers. Researchers can’t perform trials for free, and positive findings get published more often. Putting all these together, you get a perfect storm of potential for bias.
While we recognize the potential for bias (and will often note who sponsored a study), we also don’t discount research results if a study was funded by industry.
Peer review isn’t perfect by a longshot, but it does lend some degree of oversight to publication. Because of the uncertainty association with any one study’s findings, it’s extra important to have results be duplicated by different research groups.
Back tracking just a little bit, I’m admittedly not as “up” on the supplement industry as I was 5 years ago.
What changes or shifts have you all seen in the industry over the past 5 years?
I’ve seen way more nootropic formulations in the past five years. Personally, I’ve gotten more emails from people looking to keep up with difficult course-loads in school with some supplemental assistance. Part of it could also be due to certain online celebrities who experiment with supplements and attentiveness medications.
Herbal supplements seem to be growing in popularity, although they’ve always been fairly popular. This may be influenced by consumers looking for alternatives to medications, and herbals are often seen as capable of producing powerful effects (and some do … some).
Since more moms and grandmas are on the web now, more and more people are able to research their health conditions and try different supplements. That of course can be risky as well as fruitful.
Lastly, the anti-bro-science movement is definitely a new thing. Due to this, more would-be bros are researching their supplements before buying them, and throwing away those crusty old supps with ludicrous marketing claims.
That means more people reading Examine.com, and targeting those few supplements that really works (and fewer people using BeastMaker 5000 … no offense if that is actually a real supplement, which may very well be).
And looking forward, are there are new supplements that you are generally excited about?
I’d like to see the results of last year’s HMB free acid trial replicated. Single amino acid trials excite me, because they are simple and testable, with lots of room for research.
Food extracts or powders are interesting, since they sort of do for other foods what whey protein does for dairy. Like there was a trial of mango powder on blood sugar regulation last year (which we covered in our research digest).
In general, supplements that treat disease are exciting to me, more so than finding the absolute best post-workout supplement. It’s harder to treat disease than build muscle – the latter has been known fairly well for decades.
Kind of a global question, but I figure you guys are perfect to answer this since you’re entrenched in the industry:
What do you see as the future of the supplement industry? How might it look different in 5 or 10 years?
Personalized gene-based supplements! I’m kidding, but only sort of. That’s more than ten years away probably, but people are already learning about their MTHFR status and tailoring supplementation to that.
In the next 5-10 years I see more of a focus on three areas:
- Cognition, and
- Mood disturbances.
Like I said before, there are limited returns for research and new supplements for muscle gain. And fat loss supplements are likely to sort of suck for a while – the body can’t easily be tricked into losing much fat without eating less or moving more. But there is much progress to be made in being happier, and the gut likely has a lot to do with that.
I’ll definitely bet interested in that, because it’s amazing how intricately wound all the body’s systems are.
Last but not least, what is one mistake you guys have made along the way, and how did you learn from that?
While we were preparing our first issue of ERD (Examine.com Research Digest), I had every single person involved read every single article review and give me comments. When all was said and done, I had more than a thousand comments to sift through.
Lesson: two brains are better than one, but twelve brains are not better than eleven.
It was interesting, because different researchers and physicians can have completely different perspectives on the very same article. But it can lead to paralysis by analysis – there’s a fine line between drawing useful conclusions from a study and fixating on every single number and detail, to the detriment of actually learning from a study.
Awesome! And thanks again Sol, I know how busy you are.
Where can my readers find out more about you and Examine.com?
Visit us at Examine.com, and check out our Facebook page. We post on research-related topics pretty regularly. If you subscribe to ERD, you get access to a private Facebook group to discuss the topics we cover each month, and the people on there are pretty darn smart on average.
Finally – drop us a line! We love hearing from readers. And more importantly, we depend on them to help keep us abreast of the staggering variety of nutrition and supplementation topics that change each week.
As I mentioned, Sol is putting the entire Examine.com product line on sale for RTS readers through this Sunday.
If you’re interested, here are the products they offer:
The Examine.com Research Digest -This is Sol’s pick for trainers, as you get monthly updates on what’s new and hot in the supplement industry.
The Supplement Reference Guide – This is the ridiculous, over-the-top core product that Examine.com offers. Basically if you want to know about any supplement out there, it’s researched and revied in this guide.
The Guide to Supplement Stacks – More for the end-user, but this guide helps you determine what supplements are best used in conjunction with one another.