Let's be honest. Times are tough for the herb and supplements industry. Negative publicity about St. John's wort and kava, plus the slowing economy—which has not only deterred consumers, but has shrunk the capital required to formulate and study new products—has many herb and supplements manufacturers longing for the glory days of the late 1990s, when industry growth seemed like a permanent joyride.
Although the years of double-digit growth seem to be a thing of the past, there are still bright spots on the horizon. Sports supplements and weight loss products are selling well; and the herb market is primed for new products without publicity drawbacks. And, though most continents have offered up their herbal treasures already, there are unexplored corners of the globe that may yet yield a new amazing herb.
What will the next hot product be in the herb world? "When we're in the middle of the herbal ice age, it's a little difficult to answer that," says Loren Israelsen, president of Salt Lake City-based consulting firm LDI Group and co-author of the Dietary Supplements, Health and Education act. "If there are herbs of interest, those from each continent have been pretty well looked over."
However, herb experts continue to search more remote regions of the world that may yet offer new products. "Undoubtedly there are still some interesting items from Tibet and Nepal; that's still a relatively unexplored region," Israelsen says. "I've been talking to guys working in West and South Africa, and there are some really interesting plants down there that we haven't seen yet. Several have real potential."
In particular, Israelsen favors Voaconga africana, a West African plant traditionally used for mental clarity and memory enhancement. It contains the alkaloid vincamine, which may help treat senility. A Tibetan herbal formula for hepatitis C is also promising, he says.
In today's economic climate, Israelsen says, "I don't think we'll see a high level of really new breakthrough products. Maybe the question is, where are new marketing opportunities for existing products? To rip off a quote from Pliny the Younger, 'Everything old is new again,' or, as they say in the secondhand furniture business, 'It may not be new, but it's new to you.'"
Mark Blumenthal, president of the American Botanical Council, based in Austin, Texas, sees promise in herbs that have been available for some time in the American market but have been trapped below consumer radar.
"Rhodiola rosea, or artic root, has adaptogenic properties slightly different than, but similar to, some of the ginsengs," he says. There has been a recent spate of research on the herb, including several studies in Phytomedicine. Herbalgram will soon be publishing a major monograph on rhodiola, he says.
Although arctic root is new to most consumers, the well-known American ginseng, (Panax quinquefolius), may be poised for even wider recognition.
Blumenthal says solid research is the key to unlocking the sales potential of such herbs. "I'm a big believer that, if a product has clinical trials and those trials get adequately communicated to the industry and the public, that is a rational basis for companies to promote the product and for consumers to buy them."
Just as science drives sales, negative studies scare customers away, which is why there's room for new herbs to replace unpopular ones. "There is an opportunity in the market for products that begin to fill in the gaps or vacuums created by some of the unhappy science," Israelsen says.
The Nutrient Buzz
Herbs are only one aspect of the dietary supplements industry, and what works in one area may not work in another. "We're really five or six industries under one roof," Israelsen says. "The herbal industry has its own history of traditional use and world view. The nutrient biz is really a different business."
And the supplements shopper responds to different motivations than the folks who buy herbs. The weekend warrior looking for harder abs and the middle-aged woman trying to drop 10 pounds fast are quite unlike the herbal remedies customer.
"The only things selling in notable quantities are the ephedra/caffeine products. There is a massive demand for them," says Anthony Almada, president and chief scientific officer of Imaginutrition, based in Laguna Niguel, Calif. In general, ephedra-free weight loss products are not doing well, and, given the outcry over ephedra and calls for banning it, "an ephedra-free product that actually works is foremost in many companies' minds," he says.
"Another item that continues to be hot is translucent or clear ready-to-drink protein beverages," Almada says. "They're typically colored, and they're stuffed with 30 to 40 grams of protein, but designed to be carbo-devoid. Products for the carbophobic continue to be strong, and because of consumers' continued proteinophilia, these beverages do quite well—from the hardcore bodybuilder to the obese woman trying to get fit."
Recent studies linking soy isoflavone use to increased breast cancer rates have opened the door for another phytoestrogen product. "A product that holds great promise is lignan derived from flaxseed," Almada says. "It acts in a very different way than soy isoflavones, though both are considered phytoestrogens, and it's also positioned for male prostate health. It's not hot yet, but it's new."
Israelsen also sees some promising supplements on the horizon. "There's a product called DIM (diindolylmethane), a substance found in broccoli which helps balance estrogen and testosterone levels, particularly in older women and men," he says. The phytochemical may also support prostate health and help prevent hormone-related cancers.
A few products yet to gain popularity may prove extremely effective in certain applications, but aren't for everybody. "One of the last great areas is essential oils for internal use," Israelsen says. "They have tremendous effectiveness, but [marketing them successfully] takes a level of skill and knowledge not present in our industry at the moment."
A final hurdle facing manufacturers—even those with a well-researched new product—is how to use the language allowed under structure/ function claims to communicate its benefits. "It goes through the structure/function claim factory, and gets nipped and cut to fit the language we're permitted to use," Israelsen says. "This makes it tough for a promising product to break out."
The solution, he says, is editorial coverage. A story says more about a product than a label claim ever can. Motivated customers seek out such information, but most will need the help of retailers and manufacturers to understand the true benefits of cutting-edge herbs and supplements.
Mitchell Clute is a poet, musician and freelance writer based in Louisville, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 10/p. 62, 64