In recent years, alternate delivery forms for supplements have shown a dramatic increase, both in total sales and in the number of products offered. In 2006, powdered supplements made up about 17 percent of total supplements sales in the naturals channel, or $142.28 million of the $837.44 million market total, according to SPINS, which compiles data on the natural products industry. In the conventional channel, overall sales were even greater, at $189.28 million, though they represented a smaller percentage of the $4.14 billion total.
"If you look at the top 50 or 60 supplements companies, I'd say a decade ago only 20 percent had a liquid or powdered form, and now it's over half," says Grant Ferrier, editor of Nutrition Business Journal. "Overall, the pill side is losing ground to liquids and effervescents in the form of tablets and powders, such as Airborne and Emergen-C."
Among the factors driving this increase are convenience, ease of use, ability to mix these products with food or drinks, and consumer belief that powders are more bioavailable (the fraction of the dose that reaches the system) and work more quickly than their pill counterparts.
"There appears to be an increase in diversity of the types of supplements offered as powders, and also an increase in powder products in single-serving format," says Kevin Connolly, director of scientific affairs and product development for Los Angeles-based Jarrow Formulas, which makes probiotics, anti?oxidants, protein mixes, green food supplements and multivitamins.
"We currently manufacture about 60 powder products, with several more in development," Connolly says. Among the best sellers are protein powders and fruit/vegetable/greens blends.
Powdered meal replacements still own the biggest share of the powdered pie in the naturals channel, at $54.07 million, but follow powdered digestive aids and enzymes in the conventional channel. Powdered food supplements, such as antioxidant/superfood combinations derived from fruits and vegetables, come in second in the naturals channel, at $36.32 million, but haven't yet caught on with mainstream shoppers, accounting for just $5.88 million in conventional channels. Powdered vitamin and mineral supplements sell strongly in both channels, with $32.99 million in naturals and $28.91 million in conventional.
The ability to get more nutrients more easily is one of the factors driving the increase in powders. "It's impossible to do what we're doing in a single pill," says Greg Kunin, founder of Ola Loa, a vitamin manufacturer based in San Francisco. "To equal one of our packets, a consumer would have to take six to a dozen pills."
Connolly agrees that the ability of powdered supplements to deliver meaningful doses in a convenient form is one of the keys to Jarrow's success. "Powders offer the ability to take multiple-gram quantities of supplements, particularly proteins, greens and prebiotics, something that would be [un]feasible or inconvenient using traditional solid dosage forms," he says. "They allow the consumer to fortify their own drinks and foods."
Questions about bioavailability and digestion have also driven sales of powdered supplements. "Some consumers prefer water-dispersible nutrient powders because they feel that powders may have advantages in bioavailability or absorption over solid dosages, although this is not necessarily true," Connolly says.
However, they can be easier on the stomach than a handful of pills. "Many people have digestive problems or absorption problems, especially if they're sick, and our powders don't cause the same digestive trauma as pills," says Kunin. "They're so gentle on the body that people can take them, with or without food, on an empty stomach."
Ola Loa started with a multivitamin and mineral formula, but has since introduced a sport formula, a brain formula, and a bone and joint formula. The wide array of products reflects another trend driving increases in powdered supplements, according to Ferrier. "Besides easily digestible products, another trend is toward condition-specific marketing and packaging, as opposed to ingredients-based marketing," he says. "There's great consumer sophistication regarding conditions, whether that's joint health or immunity support."
Powdered supplements don't just steal buyers from traditional pills; they have the power to appeal to people who wouldn't otherwise use supplements at all. "Airborne is a good example of a product that appealed to conventional channel shoppers who might not otherwise buy supplements, because they expected it would help their resistance to getting a cold," Ferrier says. Dissolving a fizzy tablet in water is more appealing to the non-supplements user than swallowing a pill, but launching such a product in conventional channels can be difficult.
"It's certainly more challenging to get into the mass distribution channels with this kind of product," Ferrier says. "It's more expensive and larger scale, and you have to have sales numbers quickly or they dump you, which means lots of advertising dollars." Products like Airborne, an effervescent tablet that is designed to boost immunity and is sold in conventional stores, are the exception rather than the rule. "You see more innovations and changes in the natural channel, which is good news for the mid-size companies that continue to do well in that channel," Ferrier says.
In most cases, growth in new categories like powdered supplements comes by getting existing consumers to try something new, often in addition to, rather than instead of, their current supplements selections. "The core naturals shopper is more likely to pay a premium to get a specialty, high-quality product," Ferrier says. "That's why you see more of the specialty brands found in natural foods stores developing formulas based on delivery mechanisms, whether it's single dose, liquid, powder or effervescent, than you did five years ago."
Kunin says savvy retailers can create more repeat business by steering shoppers toward these specialty products. "People rarely take vitamins as directed," Kunin says. "The package may say to take two pills three times a day, but you're lucky if they take one. As a result, most people are losing a lot of the value, and they're not feeling the effect. And stores are losing out on sales, because [customers] don't come back next month—they come back nine months later." Kunin says the immediate effect of some powdered supplements, combined with the ease of use, can not only convince customers to buy a more expensive product, but to buy it more often.
The buying public seems to feel the same way. In the powdered vitamins and minerals category, sales increased 12.9 percent in the naturals channel last year and a whopping 51.3 percent in the conventional channel. Sports nutrition products also showed a big increase—39.8 percent in naturals and 43.5 percent in conventional. As products trickle from the natural to conventional channel, they can show huge sales increases, such as the 134.7 percent increase in powdered amino acids and 451.6 percent increase in powdered diet formulas shown in SPINS research.
The combination of ease of use, bioavailability and high dosages offered by powdered supplements suggests that consumers will continue to follow the trend toward unique delivery systems to get the results they want. Manufacturers are certainly providing adequate choices. Now it's up to retailers to make sure their customers know all the options.
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.
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