Natural Foods Merchandiser

Gut instinct drives supplements sales

A “hit below the belt” is taking on a new, positive meaning: Manufacturers of probiotics say they’ve never been busier, and retailers claim that gut health is one of their top supplement categories. Digestive aids, which include probiotics, enzymes, colon cleansers and herbal laxatives, topped $255 million in sales in 2009, up almost 16 percent over the previous year—outperforming nearly every other major vitamin and supplement category, according to SPINS, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research company.

Here’s a breakdown of why digestive health is a smashing success, what’s in store for the future and how retailers can capitalize on the category.

Products that will move you
Thanks to an upswing during the past four or five years in infomercials, public relations campaigns and media reports on colon and digestive health, consumers are thinking more than ever about proper digestion, says Anthony Almada, president and chief science officer of the Laguna Niguel, Calif.-based natural products think tank IMAGINutrition. A healthy digestive tract is critical for maximizing the extraction of nutrients from food and supplements, plus research now links a fit gut to improved immune system function.

Enzymes, which help break down food so the body can absorb nutrients, are a key player in digestion. People get enzymes in two ways: through their bodies, which naturally make them, and in their food, which contains them. But experts believe modern food processing destroys most enzymes. Thus, the body needs extra help. “Just like how a multivitamin needs to be the base of all the things you take, so does a digestive enzyme,” says Denise Whitney, CEO of the Sarasota, Fla.-based nutraceuticals marketing firm Creative Innovations.

Although sales of some members of the digestive supplement category, such as enzymes, have been slowly building for years, one new segment—colon-health laxatives—has undergone a dramatic resurgence. Almada believes the secret to success is the products’ immediate and perceptible effects. “It’s very hard to see a big category grow in a short period of time if the effects of the products aren’t seen, like looking in the mirror, or felt, like experiencing less pain. Or if they don’t have a measurable benefit, like lowering your blood sugar if you’re diabetic,” he says. Products like laxatives, which can produce results after just one dose, are difficult for consumers to ignore.

Probiotics, both as laxative ingredients and colon health aids, are the biggest superstars in the digestive health category. They’re popping up in yogurts, nutrition bars and cereals, and companies are developing supplement versions that are stable at room temperatures, which can lead to better exposure on store shelves as well as easier storage in customers’ homes. And that could be just the beginning. Almada points to several clinical studies suggesting that some probiotics don’t have to be alive in order to work. As the science on probiotics develops, additional studies could have dramatic impact on how probiotic supplements are manufactured, marketed, consumed and even named—since probiotics, by definition, must be alive when administered.

Michael Pelton, president of the Glastonbury, Conn.-based natural-marketplace consulting firm Inner Circle Sales, foresees new gut-health products that will merge the benefits of probiotics, prebiotics (nondigestible food ingredients that encourage beneficial bacterial growth) and digestive-health nutrients. “These products are going to become as important as your daily multivitamin,” he says. “Just like you take your multivitamin to top off your vitamin intake, you will take this to top off your enzymes.”

More education needed
The digestive health category has developed so quickly that, according to Pelton, it may have outpaced the education campaigns needed to support it. He sees retail shelves filled with 30 or 40 different digestive-health supplements, many of which feature very different ingredients and widely varying directions for use. “There are so many things you can take in this category,” he says. “Even for a guy like me, it’s very confusing.”

That’s why, from Whitney’s perspective, the big winners in the category are companies like Enzymedica and Garden of Life that have developed comprehensive education campaigns for their digestive-health product lines. Efforts include producing books and CDs to go along with products, as well as employing traveling trainers to educate retailers and present in-store lectures to consumers.

But Pelton stresses that retailers also can do their part. He suggests focusing your digestive-health inventory around a few key supplement brands. Then practice explaining the effects of the ingredients involved in these products and emphasizing the importance of taking them every day.

Joel Warner, a Denver-based writer, likes the idea of nonrefrigerated probiotics that he can store right next to his daily multivitamin.

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