As the herb and supplement category matures, it's unlikely to see the across-the-board growth experienced in the 1990s, but data shows plenty of ingredients and product categories expanding at a rapid pace. This selective growth is fueled by new research and by greater consumer consciousness regarding the role of particular products in maintaining health.
"I have no reason to think it's not a good business to be in," said Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association, based in Silver Spring, Md. "Tens of millions of Americans use herbs; millions and millions of people have used herbs for hundreds and hundreds of years. These products have continuity in our culture, and they're not going away."
According to Information Resources Inc. data, the products showing the greatest growth in the past year include blue-green algae, elderberry, olive leaf, whole fruit and vegetable supplements, green tea, chlorophyll, essential fatty acids and probiotics. Sales increases for these products range from 35 percent to 85 percent.
Essential fatty acids, including fish oil and flaxseed oil, are also among the best-selling supplements overall, accounting for $80 million in sales in the natural channel alone, according to data from San Francisco-based market research firm SPINS. "With EFAs, there's a general health message getting out," said Roy Upton, executive director of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, based in Scotts Valley, Calif. "The federal government has issued guidelines suggesting that people eat more fish, which in consumers' minds equates to EFAs."
There is already clear and convincing research linking EFAs to cardiovascular health and lowering of cholesterol, but they also have other benefits. "Many people don't realize their effect on depression, anxiety and stress," said Scott Bias, president and formulator for Paradise Herbs and Essentials, based in Huntington Beach, Calif. "The fact is that the brain is over 70 percent fatty acids, and nourishing it has an effect on neurotransmitters and on mood."
Finally, research has shown that EFAs have an effect on inflammation. "With all the fear associated with [the arthritis drug] Vioxx, shoppers in the mass market are looking for alternatives," said Upton. "EFAs slow the cascade that leads to inflammation, which is now associated with disease states from heart disease to Alzheimer's."
Like EFAs, probiotics fit the general wellness category. Though the health benefits of live cultures in yogurt have been touted for years, the link between intestinal flora and overall health is one that mass-market consumers are only now beginning to make. "The idea of probiotics … is a zeitgeist thing whose time has come, and people are just now getting it," said Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council, based in Austin, Texas.
Whole fruit and vegetable supplements, blue-green algae and chlorophyll all fall into the superfoods category. "For maximum antioxidant protection, people need 13 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and no one can really incorporate that into their diet, so consumers are becoming more aware of concentrated superfoods to get an equivalent nutrient value," Bias said.
Superfoods also have cleansing and detoxifying properties. Another factor driving their growth may be the void left by the federal ban on the weight-loss supplement ephedra. "These low-calorie superfoods have an appetite suppressant activity because they're so nutrient rich," said Upton. "As other weight-loss things get whacked, green foods may be taking up some of the slack."
Green tea is another product with many uses and strong research. Its sudden spike in popularity, at least in the mass market, may have more to do with the marketing message gradually reaching mainstream consumers than with any specific new research. In addition to its high Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity value, a measure of antioxidant activity, green tea contains a flavonoid called epigallocathechin gallate, or EGCG, which has demonstrated cancer-fighting properties. "We've been pushing green tea in Herbalgram magazine for ten years, but it's just now getting to the point where EGCG is becoming a buzzword," Blumenthal said. "I've even seen it listed on green tea smoothies in Costco."
"It's being used in everything from antioxidant products to antiaging products," said Upton. "Maybe the last 10 years' worth of information is reaching critical mass with consumers." Green tea's antioxidant activity has also been linked to decreased chance of heart attack and stroke. "I think antioxidants are always big," said Bias, "especially now that one in two Americans will be diagnosed with cardiovascular disease."
Antiviral and antibacterial ingredients are also on the rise, as witnessed by the sales spikes for olive leaf and elderberry. In light of recent studies showing inconclusive data on echinacea's efficacy, the market seems increasingly open to other herbal options. "Elderberry has been around forever, though it never really hit like echinacea," said Upton. "But everyone should use it in the winter; it's an incredibly effective antiviral."
Olive leaf also has a demonstrable immune-boosting effect. "Olive leaf is popular because more and more people are having a difficult time finding antibiotics that work to fight off microbes," Bias said. "Natural remedies tend to have a wider spectrum. In addition to olive leaf, I suspect andrographis [a popular winter-use herb] will grow in popularity."
What products and ingredients are likely to take off in the coming year? Though accurate speculation is difficult, products in the already-expanding categories of antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and immune support are likely to continue their growth. In some cases, this means new ingredients; witness the recent explosion of juice-based antioxidants, including pomegranate, mangosteen and goji. In other cases, this means variations on existing ingredients, using new methods or patentable extracts.
For example, glucosamine remains the No. 2 seller in the mass-market channel, according to SPINS, with $264 million in annual sales. Paradise Herbs has begun marketing a glucosamine from vegetable sources, rather than from shellfish, as an alternative for vegetarians and those with shellfish allergies. In this anti-inflammatory category, Bias sees room for growth with products such as turmeric and oregano as well.
Proprietary ingredients and patentable extracts can also fuel growth, as witnessed by the success of Ester-C. In the anti-inflammatory category, a patented extract of Danish rose hips called LitoZin is now being marketed for osteoarthritis. "This product really has potential in the post-Vioxx market, where more and more doctors are looking for safe and reasonably effective alternatives to COX-2 inhibitors," said Blumenthal.
Patentable ingredients are particularly appealing because California's proposition 65, which requires the governor to publish, at least annually, a list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity, has increased manufacturing costs. "Even though business is up, prop 65 issues related to allergen labeling and frivolous lawsuits are really hitting the bottom line," said Upton. "The cost of doing business has gone up dramatically."
It's still unclear what supplements will replace ephedra in the weight-loss category. "A few ingredients are vying to be the next big thing, including hoodia and citrus aurantium," said McGuffin. If one of these ingredients catches on, expect a big spike in sales in the coming year.
Finally, herb and supplements sales trends—especially in the mass market—indicate it may take a decade or more for products to hit big. It seems that the combination of solid research and creative marketing does eventually trickle down to the mass market. Consumer awareness of new herbs and supplements, however, doesn't happen overnight, so patience may well be the key to success.
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Mitchell Clute is a Crestone, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 6/p. 48, 50, 52