The Dietary Supplements Market in 2015: Business Is Good

Dec 15, 2015

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As 2015 winds down and a new calendar year is set to begin, the nutrition-supplements industry can take heart that, despite some very public challenges, sales are up, around 2.5%–3%, from 2014. Data collected from both SPINS and Euromonitor International data-analysis firms support this assertion, indicating that negative media attention directed at the supplements market this year has had minimal, if any, lasting impact on total industry growth so far.


Chris Schmidt, senior analyst, consumer health, Euromonitor International, says that, in general, the “total vitamin and supplement category performed pretty well in 2015, growing 3% in constant terms. In the United States it’s a pretty mature category,” he adds, so “when you examine the entire category, you’re not going to see explosive growth rates, because the industry is so large and well-established.” What you will see, he says, is what he calls “underlying demand growth.”

The current underlying demand growth of the supplements market is respectable. Schmidt explains. “It is still pretty strong, especially for a mature market.”

Longtime industry leader Jim Emme, CEO of NOW Foods, confirms what the numbers show: “Our experience is that the industry is in good shape, it’s strong, there’s still a lot of consumer demand for supplements and natural products,” he says, noting that demand for NOW Foods’ supplements is up in the United States and Canada, so much so that the company has had to “add capacity” to keep up.


Still Growth…Despite Negative Media and Government Attention

It’s no secret that industry was the subject of greater scrutiny than usual in 2015, particularly from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman beginning early in the year, then broadening to include a coalition of state attorneys general that included Connecticut’s George Jepsen, Indiana’s Greg Zoeller, secretary of Puerto Rico’s Department of Consumer Affairs Nery Adames Soto, and, later, Oregon’s attorney general Ellen Rosenblum. These public figures appeared to be crusading for efforts to “eliminate misleading and deceptive labeling for the benefit of consumers,” as Indiana’s Zoeller put it in a press release, with a particular focus on herbal supplements sold at well-known retail outlets GNC, Target, Walmart, and Walgreens.

GNC later reached an agreement with Schneiderman regarding its Herbal Plus products; however, in late October GNC Holdings Inc.’s stock dropped 21% and the bad press continued after Oregon’s state attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, pronounced that some supplements sold by GNC contained the substances picamilon, described by Rosenblum as a Russian prescription neurological drug, and BMPEA, an amphetamine-like substance, according to Rosenblum. The state of Oregon has filed a lawsuit against GNC over this matter. For its part, GNC issued a statement saying that “the claims made by the Oregon Attorney General are without merit and GNC intends to vigorously defend against these allegations.”

Compounding the bad PR, one month prior to Rosenblum’s filing the lawsuit, New York AG Schneiderman issued cease-and-desist letters instructing 13 dietary supplement manufacturers (including NOW Foods and other established industry names) to stop selling, distributing, and marketing “adulterated or misbranded” devil’s claw supplements. The letters cited a study performed by the New York Botanical Garden that used a DNA-barcoding technique to conclude that the devil’s claw supplements from these manufacturers contained a cheaper related species that is considered “less desirable,” according to Schneiderman’s office. (The American Botanical Council promptly refuted the “less desirable” interpretation, as well as the other conclusions reached by Schneiderman’s office, in a press release.) The AG asked the manufacturers who received the letters to recall any “adulterated” devil’s claw supplements, compensate consumers who purchased the mislabeled products, and reform their quality-control measures.

Finally, unrelated but also in October, a study was published online in The New England Journal of Medicine concluding that dietary supplements send at least 23,000 Americans per year to hospital emergency rooms and cause at least 2,000 to be hospitalized. The report has motivated some health and consumer advocates to again call for heavier FDA regulation of supplements.

So, with dietary supplements under attack, so to speak, in a very public way, how is it that industry has still grown 2%–3% over the course of the same year?