Americans confident in dietary supplement effectiveness and quality in 2020, including during COVID-19 pandemic, CRN surveys show

October 20, 2020
Jennifer Grebow
Jennifer Grebow

Jennifer Grebow is editor-in-chief of Nutritional Outlook.

The Council for Responsible Nutrition released detailed results of its latest consumer surveys on U.S. dietary supplement usage in 2020 during its virtual “NOW, NEW, NEXT” conference last week.

U.S. consumers view dietary supplements as an effective way to maintain health and wellness, including during the COVID-19 pandemic, new data show. On October 16, during day three of the Council for Responsible Nutrition’s (CRN; Washington, DC) virtual “NOW, NEW, NEXT” conference, the association released detailed results from two recent surveys funded by CRN breaking down how consumer usage and opinions of dietary supplements bore out during 2020.

COVID-19 Focus

CRN released more results from its summer survey specifically looking at whether consumers who already use dietary supplements either increased or decreased their supplement usage during the COVID-19 pandemic. The CRN-funded COVID-19 survey was conducted online by Ipsos on July 31, 2020, to August 4, 2020, on a sample of over 2004 U.S. adults aged 18 and up, including 1488 dietary supplement users.

As previously reported, the survey found that among consumers who said they changed their supplementation habits following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic (620 consumers), 91% of those reported increasing their supplement usage during the pandemic. Breaking that down, 46% of supplement users reported adding new dietary supplements to their existing supplement routines, 25% reported taking the same supplements more regularly, and 22% reported increasing supplement doses. Moreover, 11% reported changing their supplement routines specifically because of the pandemic.

Overall, those supplement users who were most likely to have changed their supplement routines during the pandemic were men (at 47%), supplement users aged 18-34 (at 65%), supplement users with children in their household (at 63%), and seasonal supplement users (66%).

Multivitamins, vitamin C, and vitamin D stood out as the top-three products supplement consumers increased usage of during the pandemic, with usage growing 59%, 44%, and 37%, respectively, among supplement users. Others supplements in the top-10 to see a boost were zinc (at +17%) and calcium (at +16%), followed by iron, vitamin B/B complex, magnesium, protein, green tea, energy drinks, vitamin E, and fiber.

Probiotics, elderberry, and cannabidiol (CBD) didn’t make the top-10 list, but all three also saw increases during the pandemic, with supplement users reporting usage increases of 10%, 9%, and 8%, respectively. Probiotics were especially popular with users aged 35 and older, while elderberry was most popular among female users.

Despite increased usage of supplements, supplement consumers also reported more difficulty accessing these products during the pandemic. Up to 16% reported being unable to purchase supplements from their usual retailer due to a store closure, 22% said they were unable to purchase supplements from their usual retailer due to stock shortages, 27% had to buy a different brand of dietary supplement due to limited product availability, and 21% had to switch from a branded supplement to a generic/store brand due to limited product availability.

As expected, supplement users reported increasing e-commerce purchasing during the pandemic, with 38% of supplement users stating they bought supplements online. Those more likely to purchase online were males (45%), young adults aged 18-34 (51%), and parents of young children under 18 (51%). These groups were also more likely to stockpile supplements.

Top reasons supplement users increased their supplement usage during the pandemic included supporting overall immune health (57%), supporting overall health and wellness (53%), and helping to reduce risk of serious illness (42%). Of note, 83% said they believe that dietary supplements play an important role in helping to support their health and wellness during the pandemic, with 98% indicating they were likely to continue their current supplement routine moving forward.

CRN’s COVID-19 survey specifically focused on consumers who were already supplement users, looking at changes to their supplementation routines during the time of the pandemic.

2020 Overall Usage

Following the presentation of its COVID-19 survey data on supplement users, CRN also reported results of its annual Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements, which was conducted by Ipsos online on August 27-31, 2020, about a month after the COVID-19 survey was conducted. The Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements captured data from 2006 U.S. adults (both supplement users and non-users), including 1471 supplement users.

In this year's Consumer Survey, dietary supplement usage among U.S. adults fell 4 percentage points, from 77% in 2019 to 73% in 2020. Tom Druke, marketing manager, minerals and nutrients, for Balchem (New Hampton, NY), presented the results during the CRN conference and commented on the drop.

“While the 77% to 73% decline is outside our margin of error, it’s still consistent with data from previous years, and it’s in line with other data in light of the pandemic," he stated. Later, he said, “No, we shouldn’t be that concerned. Yes, it’s outside of the margin of error slightly, but it’s still proportional to what we’ve seen in previous years…I think that says it’s a little bit of a blip over time, but it’s like looking at the weather: You don’t necessarily look at how it is today but how the patterns are over time.”

He also noted the potential role of the pandemic's economic impact. “In a survey conducted by Axios over September 11-14, they found that about 1 in 5 Americans say their ability to afford household goods has gotten worse (18%).” Also, he pointed out, the reported challenges consumers had accessing some supplements due to store closures and stock shortages also may have “contributed to some of the dips we’re seeing.”

Dietary supplement usage skewed to female consumers (at 77%), people over the age of 55 (at 81%), and those with higher household income and college degrees.

Vitamins and minerals are far and away the most popular type of supplements used (at 98%), followed by specialty supplements (at 46%), herbs and botanicals (at 44%), sports nutrition (at 30%), and weight management (at 19%). However, some of those categories saw usage fall this year: specialty supplements (from 52% in 2019 to 46% in 2020), herbs and botanicals (from 50% in 2019 to 44% in 2020), and sports nutrition (from 36% in 2019 to 30% in 2020).

Said Druke: “In light of the ongoing pandemic, consumers are focusing more on overall health and wellness and supporting immune health, which is consistent with what we’ve seen in both the 2020 survey and the COVID-19 survey.”

As in the COVID-19 survey, in the 2020 Consumer Survey multivitamins, vitamin D, and vitamin C ranked as the top supplements consumers used, by 74%, 42%, and 35% of consumers, respectively. Other popular supplements were calcium (26%) and protein (20%), followed by vitamin B/B complex, magnesium, green tea, vitamin E, zinc, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and turmeric. Within specialty supplements, omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics were the most widely used. CBD, which CRN added to its Consumer Survey last year, showed slightly lower usage in 2020, down to 4% in 2020 from 12% in 2019.

Druke commented on some of the popular items. “Over the last six years, both vitamin D and zinc supplements have seen a slow but steady increase among overall supplement users,” said Druke. Vitamin D usage skews more to female consumers, he added, while zinc usage skews more toward males.

In terms of age preferences, all three groups (18-34, 35-54, and 55+) ranked multivitamins, vitamin D, and vitamin C as the top three supplements users took. For younger consumers aged 18-34, protein and green tea rounded out the top five, while calcium and protein rounded out the top five for the 35-54 age group, and calcium and vitamin B/B complex for the 55+ age group.

Consumers cited overall health and wellness benefits (40%), overall immune support (32%), and filling nutrient gaps (25%) as the top three reasons why they take supplements. Notably, the number of consumers taking supplements for immune health rose 27% from 2019, replacing energy as the number-two reason why consumers supplement.

They survey asked which mental health and sleep support supplements consumers took, with 13% of overall supplement users stating they took supplements for mental health, and 14% of overall supplement users taking supplements for sleep health. For mental and sleep health, leading nutrients were melatonin, magnesium, and CBD. Sleep and mental health supplements were also more popular among younger users compared to older users.

For immune health, top supplements were vitamin C (61% of users taking), multivitamins (57%), vitamin D (47%), zinc (32%), vitamin B/B complex (28%), probiotics (27%), turmeric (19%), and elderberry (13%). Again, elderberry is especially popular among younger users.

Consumers Trust Supplements and Are Brand Loyal

Whether or not they use dietary supplements, a majority of U.S. adults (84%) surveyed reported being confident in the safety and quality of dietary supplements. This number was even higher among those who actually use supplements, with approximately 90% of supplement users reporting being confident in the safety and quality of dietary supplements.

U.S. adults are especially confident in the quality and safety of vitamin and mineral supplements (85% were confident), while those percentages were lower for herbs and botanicals (59% expressed confidence), specialty supplements (63% confident), sports nutrition (52% confident), and weight management (43% confident). Men, consumers in the topic income bracket, parents, and those with a college degree tended to be more confident in the safety and quality of supplements. When asked about their feelings about the dietary supplement industry, 74% of all adults felt that the industry is trustworthy, with numbers higher for supplement users (at 83%) compared to non-users (at 51%).

Those who took supplements were most motivated to do so by a desire to maintain their health. Other reasons included to live a longer life, gain control over a health condition, or because a health practitioner told them to. Among adults who don’t take dietary supplements, the primary reason cited is that they don’t feel a need to take supplements, followed by the price of supplements. Older adults were more likely to state that they don’t feel the need to take dietary supplements.

One of the standout takeaways from this year’s survey was an increase in consumer loyalty to their preferred brand of dietary supplement. In 2020, consumer brand loyalty reached its highest percentage, at 69%—a 9-point increase from 2018, Druke pointed out, calling it “a very significant and strong increase in brand loyalty.” Brand loyalty was highest among men, those in the top income bracket, those living in urban areas, and those with children living at home.

Retail Outlets, Delivery Forms

The majority of supplement purchases were made in mass-market channels, especially Walmart, Target, and pharmacies such as CVS, Walgreens, and Rite-Aid, according to the survey. Consumers under age 55 were more likely to purchase supplements from “less common” outlets such as health food stores, supermarkets, and independent pharmacies, Druke said. There was also a slight increase in purchases made at warehouse and club stores, with 22% of users indicating purchasing from that channel.

Up to 24% of supplement users bought supplements online, similar to last year’s survey, he added. And while the bulk of online purchases were made through Amazon.com (at 73%), online purchases made at non-Amazon sites, including Target.com and iHerb.com, grew 10% in 2020 over 2019, now sitting at 32%. Those more apt to purchase from Amazon were men, consumers under the age of 55, those living in urban areas, and parents.

The survey also looked at consumer preferences related to delivery forms. The top preferences were tablet/caplets(31%), capsules (19%), gummies (15%), softgels (10%), and chewable tablets (4%). Older consumers and consumers in rural areas tended to prefer tablets/caplets. Women and consumers under aged 35 preferred gummies most. Softgels appealed most to consumers over age 35. Ease of swallowing was consumers’ top concern when selecting a dosage format, followed by factors like price, taste, etc.