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Natural Foods Merchandiser

The Next Big Things in Herbs and Supplements

Recently, industry experts weighed in with their thoughts on the next hot herbs and supplements trends in The Natural Foods Merchandiser (see ?25 Who Fortified Supplements? in the April 2004 issue). Some of the choices were on the safe side; for example, several experts predicted continued big sales for omega-3s and joint health supplements. Some of the choices, such as hops extracts for inflammation and chicory for pre- and probiotic uses, were truly unusual.

To find out how these predictions are playing out in the marketplace, NFM interviewed retailers about what?s flying off shelves and what isn?t.

Seasonal superstars
One key discovery is that sales trends are driven by shoppers? seasonal needs. A survey in the dead of winter may find hotter sales of echinacea and other immune defense products. But in summer and early spring, other products take off as consumers venture outside.

?When people come in this time of year, they?re looking for hay fever and allergy stuff,? said Brad Chappell, supplements manager for Aqua Vita in Tucson, Ariz.

Homeopathic arnica was one expert?s pick, and this time of year it?s in big demand as well. ?Arnica gel has really picked up in the last couple of weeks, as more people are going outdoors and getting bumps and bruises,? said Jan McDonald, wellness department manager at New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa City, Iowa.

But sports injuries aren?t the only use for arnica. Though topical gels work great for minor injuries, homeopathic arnica for internal use is also a strong seller. Recent studies confirm its usefulness in reducing inflammation from a wide variety of causes, including post-surgical swelling. ?We sell tons of homeopathic arnica,? said Marilyn Walls, health and beauty coordinator for Puget Consumers Co-op in Seattle. ?Customers say it?s a miracle. They get it for sprains and bruises, but also to take internally if they?re having surgery or getting a tooth pulled.?

Give me energy
Among the herbs the experts picked were a number of energy tonics and adaptogens, including Rhodiola rosea, ginseng, maca and ashwagandha. In terms of promise, each of these herbs has some scientific backing to recommend it, but in terms of sales, it?s a mixed bag, with rhodiola and maca showing the biggest recent increases. In some parts of the country, customers looking for energy turn to other supplements instead.

?I would say that rhodiola is starting to gain a little more attention, and maca as well,? said Arabee Koch, general merchandise buyer and HABA assistant at Food Front Cooperative Grocery in Portland, Ore. ?People are looking for a more stable energy source versus caffeine.? In addition to its energy-enhancing properties, maca is reputed to have a positive effect on libido and erectile function, but Koch said it?s hard to tell if that?s why people are buying it. ?They don?t want to reveal any intimate details.?

But in Iowa it?s a different story. ?I can?t say that maca has taken off in the Midwest,? McDonald said. ?We brought in maca a couple years ago and have barely sold any. We sell hardly any ashwagandha either. For energy, we sell a lot of green foods; people ask for everything from spirulina to green tea.?

?Here in Seattle, I?ve seen only a slight increase in rhodiola, though I have a couple of customers who say they can?t live without it,? Walls said. ?Lately, people are more interested in maca, but spirulina and the green foods are generally what our customers look to for energy.?

Baby boomers buying
Several of our experts forecast strong growth in herbs and supplements for health issues associated with aging. Picks included saw palmetto for healthy prostate function; herbs for menopausal symptoms, particularly black cohosh; hawthorn for heart health; and glucosamine for joint problems. Interest in these herbs can be dependent on the type of clientele a store attracts, but most stores report strong sales in each of these areas.

Koch sums it up this way: ?Menopause, menopause, menopause. I think black cohosh is generally the biggest one for menopausal women.? She reports strong recent interest in shatavari, or asparagus root, an Ayurvedic remedy.

?For older men,? she said, ?we sell mostly saw palmetto, but also some pumpkin seed oil and lycopene, also for prostate.?

?There?s a definite demand for aging baby boomer products,? McDonald said. ?Glucosamine, saw palmetto and black cohosh are all steady, popular supplements, but I haven?t noticed any recent surge in sales.?

?Another one I sell a lot of for women is motherwort for hot flashes,? Wall said. ?[Customers are] so pleased that it works.?

Wall said people looking for supplements for joint health and inflammation are still using glucosamine, but there?s a growing interest in cat?s claw as well. ?I like it for its proanthocyanins, which are powerful antioxidants,? she said.

Aqua Vita in Tucson tends to attract a younger, health-oriented clientele, Chappell said. ?We don?t find the upper-middle-class, gout-ridden people coming in here and saying, ?I read about this; give me the most expensive thing you?ve got.? I haven?t noticed much interest in prostate or hawthorn for heart health.?

The miracle cures
Some products do so many things that they don?t fit easily in a single category. Included here are omega-3s, Co-Q10 and medicinal mushrooms.

Omega-3s are already best sellers, but recent news coverage on the role of inflammation—which omega-3s can help reduce—in everything from heart disease to cancer seems poised to push sales even higher. Omega-3s are also directly linked to reduced hypertension and alleviation of auto-immune diseases such as arthritis and lupus.

?I recommend the omega-3s to absolutely everyone concerned with anything about their health,? Chappell said. ?It?s one of the first things I point [customers] to as far as general health. And with Co-Q10, I?ve brought in the best lines because I know how important [quality] is—again, though, most customers aren?t requesting it specifically for heart health.? More people, he said, are interested in its properties as an antioxidant and immune-booster, and for cognitive function.

?The omega-3 thing is just huge—fish oil, evening primrose, flaxseed, all of it,? Wall said. ?I must tell that story a thousand times a day.?

Wall also likes the sales potential of medicinal mushrooms, both for general immune function and for supporting the body?s response to specific illnesses, such as cancer and AIDS. ?The research is really good on the mushrooms, and there are now more combination formulas out,? she said. ?Reishi is probably our biggest seller.?

?We sell a lot of maitake and cordyceps, mostly for immune function,? Koch said. Though medicinal mushrooms have been on store shelves for years, this is a product that hasn?t yet gotten the mainstream exposure some think it deserves. Given that so many ailments begin with immune deficiency, mushrooms have the capability to take a place in everyone?s medicine cupboard.

The outer limits
Retailers report that, with the exception of oregano, the use of essential oils internally is still in its infancy. Again, the right research getting play in the right media could change that quickly. As for hops and chicory, no one has sold any as of yet. Then again, visionaries are always a few years ahead of the rest of us, so it?s too soon to say our experts missed the boat on these predictions.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 6/p. 48, 50, 55

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