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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Are organic supplements the next big thing?

Take a survey at any gym to learn what anyone working out for a while knows: Plateaus happen. After a period of growth, the human body needs time to catch its breath and catch up with all the changes created through a dedicated health program. It's at that point that some new energy must be injected to reinvigorate growth, most likely through a fresh approach.

The same could be said for your supplements aisle. After a long period of growth, the last couple of years have seen sales slowing and then declining. According to The Natural Foods Merchandiser's June 2004 Market Overview, supplement sales grew a meager 4.2 percent in food stores over 2003. The June 2005 NFM Market Overview brought worse news: Sales dipped 11.1 percent.

However, recent years have seen explosive organic growth. According to the 2005 Market Overview, the top 10 organic categories grew 22 percent over 2004, with some categories posting 40, 60 and even 120 percent growth. The 2004 Market Overview reported that in 2003 organic personal care grew 81 percent.

Could organic be the new energy the supplements aisle needs?

In late August 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a memorandum stating that "irrespective of the end use" of a product, the National Organic Program organic seal may be used if all standards for organic agricultural products are met. The door had been opened for organic supplements.

In fact, in mid-2005, Brattleboro, Vt.-based New Chapter launched a line of certified "made with organic" multivitamin probiotic supplements. "When we introduced the concept to one of our largest retailer partners, the reaction from the very top of that organization was that 'the moment you introduce organic vitamins and minerals will be a defining moment in our industry. It will unify the organic mission of the organic produce and grocery departments with the vitamin aisles,'" says Tom Newmark, president of New Chapter.

But the road to organic supplements isn't so much a road as a difficult rocky trail—perhaps as it should be. "There's a necessary evolution," says Gay Timmons, owner of Los Gatos, Calif.-based ingredient supplier Oh, Oh Organic. "You have some of the same challenges that you have with cosmetics. In the cosmetic industry, products aren't cooked, so you have to start with [ingredients] that comply with [FDA laws]." Finding certified organic materials that meet microbiological standards is difficult because "supplements can't be cooked or you lose the nutrition," Timmons says. Ingredients must therefore meet a far stricter standard than, say, heated food ingredients, which can be cooked to kill further bacteria.

"You have to be able to document, with absolutely perfect paperwork, every step of your process." It would be ideal if manufacturers could band together and move toward finding an industry standard.
Also, once a company makes the commitment to organic, the hard work has just begun. "It's one thing for the supplier to say to us, 'We are organic.' Fine. But now you have to be certified organic, and you have to be certified by a certifying agency that is recognized under the National Organic Program. And you have to be able to document, with absolutely perfect paperwork, every step of your process," Newmark says. "It's not enough to say, 'We're using certified organic non-GM archival soybeans as part of the fermentation medium for our vitamins and minerals.' That's all well and good, but it's not enough that the soybeans themselves are certified organic. How about the fermentation laboratory where the soybeans are fermented? How about the yeast that is used to ferment the soy? Where do you find organic yeast?"

Alexander von Schoenau, president of Alpine Pure, a Swiss company with U.S. offices in Fall River, Mass., uses the European standard as an example of how difficult organic can be. "In Germany, to get the organic label on a product you need to have at least 97 percent of the product organic. This is only possible with juice or food, but not with food supplements containing a capsule shell or aiding ingredients you need next to the active ingredient, which are most of the time impossible to be organic."

The capsule that von Schoenau refers to is enough to push a supplement below the 95 percent standard needed for a fully organic label. Timmons says the "made with" organic designation was created for just such an instance.

Marci Clow, director of education and product information for Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Rainbow Light, says that even trickier than the more obvious external part of a supplement is the process of creating, say, a multivitamin. "We have a couple of food-grown multis in our line, but you start with a broth that has to have synthetic nutrients added to it in order to grow that nutrient and make it a food-grown product," she says. "So, unless you're just using a supplement that's food only, it doesn't really seem to be credible as an organic product."

And getting the U.S. industry to agree on a standard specifically for supplements—and not tied directly to the food standards—may prove difficult.

"It's even worse than personal care," Clow says. She uses the example of placing a vegetarian label on a supplement as an analogy for how difficult finding a separate organic standard may be. "What are these ingredients originating from? What are they stabilized with? How do you define that your product is vegetarian?" Clow says. "You're obviously not adding ground-up burger to it, but if it comes from an animal-based ingredient it seems kind of cheesy that you are able to call it vegetarian."

She says it would be ideal if manufacturers could band together and move toward finding an industry standard, which would be a boost for organics and for the supplement industry in general. However, she says consumer demand will really drive when and how fast that process moves forward. "Only time's going to tell how much of a demand there really is going to be for organic products. I think on the West Coast and the East Coast, yeah, probably. It will jam and sell better, but in the Midwest?"

But consumer demand—and the possibility of energizing the supplements category—may indeed already be forcing manufacturers to be creative and find new ways to move toward organic supplements.

Ed Ostrowski, managing director of Alpine Pure, says that a recent retail trip to Rhode Island helped bring home the point of just how savvy consumers are. "The store manager said, 'You know, things have really changed, Ed. In the past six months to a year, where before people would have just glanced at the back of the box, now they're opening it up, they're looking at the material inside, they're reading it, they're asking questions, they want to get more educated.'"

The answer, Timmons says, may be found in looking back to look forward. "I know a lot of old chemists in their 80s, and I literally look at them and say, 'OK. You were going to college in 1937. How did you do it then?' They didn't use petroleum products then. They didn't do these syntheses. If you look at some of these really old cosmetic products, they are made without preservatives."

For example, Ponds cold cream is a specific kind of emulsion that does not require an antimicrobial, according to Timmons. "We have much more knowledge now so it just makes sense that we can solve whatever the problems are. First we have to identify what we actually can do and begin to do it. Identify what we want to do and work towards it."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 3/p. 120-121

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