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How COVID-19 launched immunity to a year-round business—and what comes next

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Retailers and brands see immune-support supplements as the new normal.

“A monumental year.”

“That growth is crazy.”

“A most irregular year.”

These are the superlatives that define 2020’s year in supplements, as quoted by Claire Morton Reynolds, the Nutrition Business Journal senior data analyst, at the SupplySide West conference in Las Vegas Oct. 30, 2021, in a seminar produced by the American Herbal Products Association.

Supplements sales grew in 2020 by $7 billion, to $55.7 billion, according to NBJ data—a whopping 14.5% overall growth.

One-third of all new supplements sales in 2020 was in the immune category. That’s a $2.5 billion uptick in immunity supplements alone.

And that leads to another quote that will define 2021 and beyond:

“Immune health is a gateway.”

That is, immunity supplements are now a “year-round category,” said Morton Reynolds. “It used to be driven by cold and flu season, and it still will be, but consumers are getting to support year-round immunity.”

Immunity supplements were up an astounding 72% in 2020. And while NBJ projects 2021 to come in at a more pedestrian 5% growth, the market is now permanently north of $5 billion.

Opportunities also abound in COVID-adjacent conditions—so, immunity, yes, but also stress and sleep and anxiety, not to mention weight management.

Most of these health concerns were what drove the popularity of adaptogenic herbs such as ashwagandha, schisandra and rhodiola for the last decade, as well as hemp CBD in the last handful of years.

According to consumer surveys by Innova Market Insights, one in four consumers in the U.S. reported that they began taking an immune supplement during the pandemic, while one-third of consumers say they have increased their use of supplements.

And with colds and flu season upon the U.S. consumer, 58% of consumers reported to Innova that they would increase their immunity supplements use in the coming months.

“Will it stick?” asked LuAnn Williams, co-founder the director of innovation at Innova. “For the foreseeable future, it will stick.”

An August 2020 NBJ survey of 229 natural and organic food, beverage and supplement brands asked how many new products companies launched in 2020 that target immunity. The largest quintile of companies, 43%, said between one and three products. In second place was actually none, at 38%. Twelve percent of companies launched between four and six immunity supplements, while 4% launched between seven and nine products, and 2% launched more than 10.

Ingredients on parade

The top growth ingredients in 2021 and beyond all have elements of immunity to them. Prebiotic fibers and probiotic bacteria may have plateaued in gut-health applications but saw a 40% growth in immunity in 2020. Other ingredients booming include mushrooms, elderberry, cranberry, blueberry and vitamin D.

“Vitamin D sales spiked five or six years ago and growth dropped off,” said Morton Reynolds, “but 2020-21 was massive growth for turning that growth back. Vitamin D was major last year.”

That had to be due in no small part to the tsunami of published research on vitamin D as it relates to COVID-19 outcomes. A total of 139 studies on vitamin D and COVID-19 have been published, generally finding higher blood levels of vitamin D correlate to better COVID-19 outcomes, while lower and deficient levels of the sunshine relate to worse outcomes.

While every multi-SKU brand has been rolling out supplements for immunity, others are adding immunity ingredients to existing formulas and slapping an “Immunity!” starburst on the pack.

But what really seems to be resonating lately is multibenefit formulations.

“Immune health remains the strongest functional platform in the current market,” said Williams. “The product offerings also explore multiple health benefits within the same product.”

This continued expansion and innovation within supplements means more shelf space for immunity supplements, and more opportunities to engage with concerned consumers about the best, most convenient way to help them support their own healthy lifestyle. 

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