8 Ingredient Sales Surprises of 2017

Jan 4, 2018
  • The more things change, the more they stay the same, right? Not for ingredients in the vitamin, dietary supplement, and herbal product spaces they don’t. Over the past 12 months,1 the supplements industry has witnessed sizable shifts in which health-and-wellness ingredients are hot, which are not, and which are just waiting to be discovered.

    To get a better handle on what 2017’s patterns reveal, Nutritional Outlook asked the market researchers at SPINS (Chicago) to point to ingredients for which this year’s sales data tells a deeper story—happy or otherwise.


    1. All sales numbers are courtesy of SPINS and cover the 52 weeks ending November 5, 2017. Statistics are derived from a cross-channel aggregate data pull of multi-outlet, natural, and specialty-gourmet retailers of the total U.S. market, unless otherwise specified.




    Photo © iStockphoto.com/Kativ

  • Protein
    Another year dawns—and protein is still well-nigh inescapable. But a dive into the data uncovers no lack of ferment within the category.

    Consider the story surrounding plant proteins. When looking at plant-based options broadly, their continued growth in the conventional multi-outlet (MULO) channel—at a rate of 20% in 2017—signals mainstream appeal. But that 20% rate is a fraction of the 53.5% growth that plant proteins saw in MULO during 2016, and it accompanies an 8.1% drop in sales in the natural channel.

    The story for multi-plant protein blends, however, is rosier, as sales in MULO rose at a rate of 36.7% to hit more than $92 million in 2017. Speaking specifically about multi-source plant ingredient combinations, Scott Dicker, natural products researcher for SPINS, notes that such products “have been perceived as more natural, perhaps clean label and thereby more popular among natural products industry (NPI) consumers.”

    All told, they accounted for more than half of sales in the plant-based set, he adds, despite their notching a decline in the natural channel.

    And don’t forget animal proteins! In almost the reverse of the plant world, animal-based protein sales are trending upward in the natural channel, hitting more than $48 million at a growth rate of 21.8%, while declining by 0.1% in MULO. That said, Dicker notes, “Because natural channel shoppers prioritize clean labels, NPI attributes such as grass-fed dairy proteins are now boosting popularity in the natural space. Dairy protein has caught up to the label claims and positioning that drives the NPI, and they are taking back a lot of the market share.”


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  • Bee Products, Pollen, and Propolis
    First, some clarification: We all know bee pollen as a widely touted “superfood” rich in vitamins; bee propolis, on the other hand, is less familiar. A resin extracted from beehives, bee propolis has a long history of traditional use aiding wounds and canker sores, among other indications. Meanwhile, SPINS defines bee products as those containing honey as a functional ingredient.

    So, with those definitions in mind, SPINS reports cross-channel sales growth of all three as up over the previous year. But while bee products and pollen have enjoyed higher growth in MULO than in the natural channel—up 32.6% and 250%, respectively—bee propolis is doing comparatively better in the natural and specialty gourmet channels (11% and 22.3%, respectively).

    Kim Kawa, senior nutrition researcher for SPINS, notes that across channels, bee products positioned as for children contributed to “a sizeable portion of sales”—more than $15 million— “in the form of honey pops and cough syrups.” As for bee propolis supplements, the highest dollar change over 2016 was in manuka honey–based lozenges, although “the top–ranking product by absolute dollars is in tincture form,” she says. In fact, across the natural and specialty gourmet channels, propolis in lozenge (11.3%) and tincture (19.3%) forms showed the most growth.


    Photo © iStockphoto.com/CHBD

  • Black, or Nigella, Seed
    Whether you call it black cumin, black caraway, or just plain black seed, the seeds of the Nigella sativa plant are a staple of ancient healing traditions, particularly Ayurvedic medicine.

    Yet even today, their profile as functional ingredients in the health-and-wellness arena continues to grow. Black seed has seen triple-digit growth over the past 52 weeks in all three channels that SPINS monitors: 347.6% in MULO, 220.4% in natural and 233.8% in specialty gourmet. That makes for an aggregate sales volume of just over $4.5 million. (Not bad for an ingredient with cross-channel sales of only $1.4 million one year ago.)

    While the majority of black seed supplements are in liquid oil form—with black seed appearing mainly as a standalone ingredient—Kawa notes that some new products tag-team it with other functional, and trending, ingredients. (Think moringa, echinacea/goldenseal, bitter melon, and pumpkinseed oil.) “Multiple studies pair black seed with turmeric,” she adds, “and since turmeric is on everyone’s radar, this could end up being an avenue of introduction for consumers, as well.” Even body care products like lotions, serums, washes, and soaps are bringing black seed onboard.


    Photograph by Mountainhills/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-4.0

  • Elderberry
    It doesn’t hurt to be an antioxidant-rich berry these days, as sales figures for elderberry (genus Sambucus) attest. Elderberry ingredients have been growing at double-digit rates in 2017, most notably in MULO, where sales hit well over $17 million, up 31.9% from the previous year.

    Kawa points out that the most popular elderberry form in MULO by far was the gummy ($6.4 million and 90.8% growth over the previous year). But in the natural and specialty gourmet channels, elderberry liquids ($6.5 million in sales) and tinctures ($2.5 million) were the winners overall.

    “It’s interesting to note that the top-ranking product in the natural channel is in gummy form, followed by liquid syrups,” Kawa says, “and they’re all manufactured by well-established brands.” As for the specialty gourmet channel, the top three products are all liquids.


    Photograph by Mountainhills/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-4.0

  • Cranberry
    If elderberry was 2017’s antioxidant-berry “hero,” let’s call cranberry its slightly diminished sidekick. For despite studies linking it to relief for everything from urinary tract infections to gum disease, cranberry as a supplement ingredient saw its sales decline 7.9% across all channels this past year. Quite a contrast from its 18.8% growth a year before.

    Even cranberry-based foods and beverages—cranberry sauce excepted—chalked up poorer sales in 2017 relative to 2016. But those looking for a bright spot can turn their eyes to product innovations that blend cranberry with other popular health-and-wellness ingredients. For example, Kawa says, “At Expo East, Decas’ whole cranberries and omega-enriched cranberries stood out to one of our trend trackers. One example of how cranberries might turn these numbers around.”


    Photo © iStockphoto.com/nsilcock

  • Echinacea
    Cold and flu season never fails to call to mind echinacea—that standby of under-the-weather herbal remedies. And while watchers of the supplement space might wonder what surprises Echinacea could possibly still have up its sleeve, sales of the ingredient were up 22.1% across the board this year, with the highest growth (24%, for a total of well more than $81 million in sales) registering in the MULO channel.

    And how are NPI consumers enjoying their Echinacea supplements these days? Shoppers in MULO appear to favor gummies and chewable tablets to the tune of almost $48 million and over $18 million, respectively. (Worth noting: chewable tablet sales grew in MULO at an impressive 75.1% rate in 2017.)

    Natural and specialty gourmet shoppers, by contrast, spend their Echinacea dollars in old-school style, making tinctures ($3.2 million) and capsules ($1.7 million) the most popular supplement formats in those channels today.


    Photo © iStockphoto.com/evgenyb

  • Cider Vinegar Supplements
    Ask any hipster and they’ll tell you that all things fermented—including cider vinegars—are the old-timey wave of the future. (And don’t get them started on the “mother.”) Thus, a boomlet in cider vinegar supplements may be a side effect of the vogue for fire ciders—herb–, root–, and peel–infused vinegars championed for their anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and metabolism–boosting effects. Adds Kawa, “We suspect this rise in sales aligns with the rise we’ve seen in drinking vinegars, shrubs, switchels, and fire cider beverages.

    What rise in sales? In the MULO channel alone, cider vinegar supplements raked in $3.8 million over the past year, which works out to a growth rate of 146.2%. And consumers aren’t just buying these products because they’re cool; across all sales channels, Kawa says, “Health focus marketing reports weight loss”—$2.4 million— “and digestive health”—$1.2 million— “as top-ranking” reasons for purchase, by absolute dollars.


    Photo © iStockphoto.com/Saaster

  • Medium-Chain Triglycerides
    Blame the coconut craze; blame the latest “It” diet; blame those guys at the gym who’re always talking about their supplement regimens: Whatever the reason, medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are growing across all channels. By the end of 2017, they generated $7.3 million in sales, which represented 87.4% growth over the previous year.

    Says Dicker, “This rise may be correlated with the boom in the ketogenic diet, in which MCTs have been tagged as the premiere fat source of energy. There are now brands featuring whole keto lines.” No wonder, then, that SPINS has noticed a rise in sports-nutrition formulas that include MCTs.

    The health focus that consumers seek is clear: across channels, weight loss, and energy support came out tops in absolute-dollar sales, at $2.9 million and $1.7 million, respectively. Single-ingredient liquid oil supplements marketed by well-established brands appear to drive most growth in absolute dollars, Dicker notes, but top growth rates percentage-wise stem from newer brands in the natural channel pitching their products’ as amenable with the bulletproof diet, or plugging their added flavors (e.g., strawberry, coconut, vanilla, or hazelnut).

    “MCT is beginning to gain more traction in the specialty gourmet channel,” Dicker adds, “and although sales aren’t as significant as those in the natural channel or in MULO, this is where we’re seeing many more SKUs just starting to report sales.”


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