A few years ago, health news headlines were all about low-carb. Now, vitamin D deficiency is the craze, as mainstream media outlets report on emerging research linking the nutrient to a whole range of health conditions, from schizophrenia to periodontitis to diabetes and even to breast cancer.
It is little wonder, then, that sales of the vitamin jumped more than 91 percent in the FDM channel between August 2009 and August 2010, as product sales nearly doubled from $65.2 million to $124.7 million. This spike is similar to the one reported by SPINS the previous year period, from August 2008 to August 2009, when sales jumped from $30.21 million to $65.22 million — a 115.9 percent increase.
It is in the natural channel, though, that vitamin D is making even more spectacular gains.
In the past year, vitamin D product sales totalled $16.5 million, a 524 percent increase over 2008 figures of $4.6 million.
"New product launches nearly doubled in both channels over the previous year," said Kerry Watson, manager of SPINS Product Library. "The amount of published research on this ingredient has been the key driver in its huge success. Most conventional physicians now routinely test for vitamin D levels in standard blood tests."
Some in the industry say this growth in vitamin D may not be across the board, however.
One of the largest global suppliers of raw vitamin D, AGD Nutrition of Texas, sells seven types of vitamin D2 and D3, and it has not seen the kind of explosive growth reported by the SPINS data in its own ingredient sales.
The bulk of the company's business has historically been in animal nutrition, but in March the company signed a sales and marketing agreement with XSTO Solutions to expand its human-nutrition sales. Its top clients include other top national and multinational vitamin D suppliers.
"What we have seen is a whole lot of increase by way of doctors and script-writing for vitamin D, but not so much through the Walgreens, CVSes, and VitaminShoppes," said Gary Vannorsdel, president of AGD Nutrition. "Vitamin D still seems to be a postponement-consumer decision, particularly in these tough economic times. People don't have to have it now, so they don't."
Beverage manufacturers also may be cutting back. "Starting about 18 months ago, with shortages in vitamin D, price hikes, and coupled by a tough economy, fluid fortifications, such as milk and sports drinks, also began to fall. Buying products like those are also postponement consumer decisions," Vannorsdel said.
How much is enough?
The biggest obstacles to vitamin D growth may be political.
"Government and academia still refuse to accept the new data that show the benefits of higher vitamin D levels," said Gary Vannorsdel, president of AGD Nutrition. "It totally amazes me."
In the US, the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) has set the daily reference dietary intake of vitamin D for children and adolescents at 200 IU/day (with an upper limit of 2,000 IU). In 2008, the American Academy of Pediatrics broke with the FNB by recommending 400 IU/day for children and adolescents.
Still, many scientists are saying that is too low, and a committee of experts funded by the Canadian and U.S. governments is reviewing the recommendations. A final report is expected by year's end.
Chart: Vitamin D sales