By Steve Mister, President and CEO, Council for Responsible Nutrition
If today’s supplement marketers and consumers could time travel back to 1998, they’d see a very different dietary supplement marketplace: the aisle would be much smaller, brand selection would be narrower, delivery forms like gummies and gels wouldn’t be on the shelves, some of today’s “hot” specialty ingredients would barely be noticed—think protein and probiotics. But in other respects, we’d see familiarity: multivitamins would still be prominent, consumers would be asking about unnecessary chemicals, and supplement users would want assurances of safety on the label. For the past 20 years, as the U.S. population has grown, the percentage of U.S. consumers who take supplements has steadily increased. At the same time, the types of supplements consumers use have grown, too: while the multivitamin is still the most popular supplement, users have expanded into CoQ10, fiber, omega-3s, and various herbals. The U.S. supplements market now touts over 170 million users and is $41 billion strong.
The industry itself has changed, too. The infusion of capital; investments from food, pharma, and packaged goods companies; new regulatory requirements like GMPs and adverse-event reporting; and even emerging research supporting new benefits for old ingredients have all contributed to a more mature, more responsible and robust collection of manufacturers and marketers to greet a new generation of supplement consumers.
Credit for the market expansion starts with the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) in 1994. Contrary to critics’ revisionist history of DSHEA serving as a form of industry deregulation, the fact is that DSHEA actually added consumer-safety provisions and conferred new authority on FDA to regulate supplements. Not only that, DSHEA defined the supplement category. In turn, the law provided more certainty for manufacturers, a roadmap for labeling, and a clearer path to industry growth. One can argue about which came first—consumer demand for a wider variety of products, or marketers who saw an opportunity to create consumer demand. Regardless, today’s consumers crave both tried and true vitamins, as well as niche categories, new ingredients, and products segmented to their personal demographics. They have the clarity and certainty that DSHEA provides to thank.
Today, supplements are mainstream healthcare, no longer referred to as “alternative” or “fringe.” Along with our traditional consumers are soccer moms, millennials, more health-conscious men, and thriving baby boomers who want to maintain their active lifestyles. The steady growth of positive science continues to demonstrate both the need to fill nutritional gaps due to poor eating and the array of health benefits supplements provide. Healthcare practitioners recommend them; online influencers tout them. While health food stores still do a robust business, supplements are even more widely accessible today, from the big box stores to supermarket chains, from healthcare practitioners’ offices to direct sellers, from the online retail portals to gyms and yoga studios.
Consumer attitudes toward supplements are evolving, too. Today’s consumers are more proactive about their health, looking to focus on prevention. Distrust of large institutions makes them want to take more control of their healthcare decisions. They’re seeking products by condition, in addition to seeking to fill nutrient gaps. They’re relying more on digital media and online social communities for recommendations. Millennials, as well as boomers, seek assurances of quality and safety at the same time they shop across channels for value and for companies whose brands they align with.
Today’s supplement consumers also insist on transparency and demand accountability, so industry has responded with “clean labels;” allergy-free, non-GMO, and third-party-certified products; and resources like the industry’s new Supplement OWL product registry. All these factors give consumers more confidence in dietary supplements than ever. When Nutritional Outlook celebrates its 40th anniversary, I hope we’ll be able to say we met—even exceeded—consumer expectations.
Steve Mister is the president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN; Washington, DC), the leading trade association for the dietary supplement and functional food industry.