Botanicals may be ancient ingredients, but they may also be the wellness wave of the future.
Depending on your mindset, the pace of change in today’s world can be either a source of never-ending excitement, or a cause for constant anxiety. And to a growing number of American adults, it appears that modern life’s vagaries sure do feel more like the latter.
In its “Stress in America 2021” survey1, the American Psychological Association found fully 63% of adults agreeing that uncertainty as to what the next few months might bring gives them stress, while nearly half—49%—claim that even as society emerges from lockdowns, the pandemic still makes planning for the future not just hard, but impossible.
That’s no way to live, and so Americans have turned to any number of modalities to cope. But in an irony that’s almost poignant, some of the most popular options—we’re looking at you, prescription meds—carry an uncertainty all their own thanks to side effects, safety concerns, and increasingly steep price tags.
So rather than wait for the next chill pill to get cooked up in a futuristic pharma lab, more consumers are looking to the past—and to botanicals—to help manage in our anxious moment.
“People are understandably stressed right now,” concedes Wilson Lau, president, Nuherbs, and CEO, NuTraditions (San Leandro, CA), “but they’re also asking themselves, ‘Am I uncomfortable enough to need pharmaceuticals, or would a little help from a natural substance that’s been used through the ages be enough?’”
To him and others, the answer’s obvious: “As people try to address their health and happiness proactively, what better way is there than with ancient traditions and herbal products that come from the earth?”
Wellness Wave of the Future
Botanical ingredients do seem uniquely suited to this era. Not only do they hold out the hope of relief when many crave it; they also tick the “natural” box that commands such a premium with those same consumers. Even better, contemporary science is finally elucidating the mechanisms behind botanicals’ benefits, vindicating their long history in healing traditions from Ayurveda to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
So while botanicals may be ancient ingredients, they may also be the wellness wave of the future.
That’s certainly Beth Lambert’s bet. “There’s a great need to maintain overall health and wellness that neither food nor pharmaceuticals alone can address,” says the CEO of Herbalist & Alchemist (Washington, NJ). “This is especially true for those under stress, not sleeping enough, or not getting a balanced diet—basically, most of the general population. Botanicals can close this gap, helping the body function as it should and providing a welcome route on the path to wellness.”
Even skeptical consumers might sign on to that promise—and those consumers are out there. “There’s plenty of distrust of the pharmaceutical industry,” notes Brien Quirk, director of R&D, Draco Natural Products (San Jose, CA), “especially with ‘forever chemicals,’ pesticides, and recalled drugs in the news. But botanicals, by contrast, have long track records and a full spectrum of healing bioactives at a much lower cost and with safer long-term use.”
Assets like that have goosed botanical demand. As Cal Bewicke, CEO, Ethical Naturals Inc. (Novato, CA), points out, while U.S. supplement sales overall flourished along with COVID-19—rising 14.5% in 2020 and an estimated 7.5% in 2021, according to Nutrition Business Journal’s Market Overview—botanicals “exceeded both these growth rate levels with a 17.3% increase in 2020 alone,” he says.
Lambert can see why. “During the pandemic,” she says, “people began focusing on their ‘self-health.’” That is, as conventional medicine found itself at a loss for solutions early on, consumers naturally gravitated toward “what had been used in the past and as part of other systems of medicine,” she says. In other words: botanicals.
“And when stress became a factor that added to the pandemic’s uncertainty,” Lambert continues, “people again turned to herbs,” establishing a degree of trust and habituation that keeps botanicals in the picture even today, as vaccinations and the sheer course of evolution rendered COVID-19 less of a threat than it once was.
That trust and force of habit have combined with a “greatly expanded awareness of the botanical message” to make herbal solutions “all the more mainstream,” Quirk says.
And indeed, the same herbal options that were once the darlings mainly of “older hippies, counterculturalists, and back-to-nature consumers like vegans” now attract much broader audiences under an ever-bigger tent, Quirk argues.
One such audience—and one that may actually intersect with some of those “older hippies” and “counterculturalists”—is the wave of boomers entering retirement. “Demographic changes taking place with the baby boomers are increasing the demand for antiaging products that forestall memory loss and the other inevitable signs of aging,” he says. “And many of the key bioactives in this space, such as resveratrol, fisetin, quercetin, pterostilbene, and apigenin, originate in botanical sources.”
Follow the Science
That we even know this testifies to the fact that “the body of science on herbs is enormous,” Lambert notes, adding that “when I get asked about botanical research, I point people to the U.S. National Institutes of Health resource PubMed, which is part of the National Library of Medicine.”
Why? “A simple PubMed search for an individual botanical, or even just for terms like herb, will yield peer-reviewed articles and published studies in the hundreds to thousands,” she declares.
Bewicke agrees, arguing that botanicals have planted themselves so firmly within the mainstream thanks in large part to the science now supporting their legacy of use. And that science continues to grow, he adds, “as companies invest more in clinical studies to substantiate health claims.”
Ethical Naturals is among those companies, having “done two studies at Rutgers University to support the effectiveness of our Cranberex cranberry extract in addressing UTIs,” Bewicke says. “We also did a successful study on our VinCare grape extract for cardiovascular support. Other studies have applied to Ginkgo biloba, saw palmetto, saffron, and more.”
But while Lau celebrates botanicals’ status as subjects of scientific study as much as any other sector advocate, he celebrates their history, too—as do consumers.
“People are reverting to what’s natural and easier to understand,” Lau insists. “How a particular herb works may be extremely complex, but the idea that it comes from the earth makes it seem simpler and purer—and, thus, more desirable.”
This owes to an intense yearning among future-shocked consumers “to return to their roots and to how their ancestors did things,” Lau argues. That being the case, “Consumers find herbs’ long histories and proven track records extremely compelling. It’s harder to convince someone that ‘X’ is great for ‘Y’ when ‘X’ has just been discovered; but telling them that ginger has a long history in multiple herbal traditions for supporting healthy digestion just makes sense.”
But when you boil it all down, Lambert believes, botanicals’ success stems from quality.
“When consumers get the result they’re looking for—which they often do with well-designed, quality herbal formulas—that strengthens the category,” she concludes. As such, she says, the SKUs racking up sales for Herbalist & Alchemist are those that demonstrably support immune, cardiovascular, digestive, kidney, and liver health, as well as those addressing stress and sleep, and musculoskeletal concerns.
Over at Draco, “Mushrooms still seem to be the hottest drivers,” Quirk says, “generating our biggest sales.”
He chalks it up to their “mystique,” adding that mushrooms aren’t just whole-food, pesticide-free ingredients replete with vitamins, minerals, soluble fiber, and amino acids; they also contain “natural antibiotics as plant-defense compounds” and are the epitome of adaptogens—“the most potent of all botanicals in terms of immunomodulation, balancing and not overstimulating the immune system,” he claims.
“Consumers have discovered that medicinal mushroom extracts have broader immune benefits than even vitamin C, selenium, or zinc,” he adds—“all of which still have value in a complementary formula, but don’t seem to have the wealth of current research that mushrooms do.”
Like Lambert, he directs the curious to PubMed, where “countless extensive studies back mushrooms’ wellness benefits not just for immune support but for cardiovascular support, metabolic and blood-sugar support, anti-inflammation, mood, sleep, cognitive function, and more.”
And while he’s witnessed interest across the demographic spectrum, “it seems like young people are really pushing the trend,” he says. Maybe it’s their fondness for fermentation, gut health, or self-experimentation—“younger people tend to be braver and more open-minded about trying nonconventional herbs from other cultures,” he argues—but whatever it is, it’s working.
Adventures in Application
The appearance of functional mushrooms in everything from standard-issue supplements to functional coffees, chocolates, smoothies, instant drink powders, and even some conventional foods and beverages proves to Quirk that they really have earned a higher profile with the public.
But for Lau, the extent to which all botanicals have colonized novel applications deserves respect. “It’s gone beyond traditional capsules, tablets, and tinctures, and even beyond the gummies and functional foods that were trendy a few years ago,” he observes. “Who would have imagined that Hello Dreams, from our NuTraditions retail brand, would be delivered via an oral strip that you swallow?”
The brand uses a super-concentrated version of Nuherbs’ Calm Down botanical blend to deliver an effective dose in the oral-strip format. And because the product’s “hero herb” is sour jujube date seed, it can claim scientific support for its sleep-promoting and relaxing properties, Lau says.
“The next level in our cards is to do scientific research to show that this particular product and the Calm Down blend work,” he says. “We’re definitely working toward conducting those studies.”
Playing the Long Game
As they do, they and others in the botanical space will have to contend with the headwinds tempering the triumphs in the space—the first of which involves the botanical supply chain.
As Lambert explains, “The lead time for products that start with the growing and harvesting of raw materials is longer than for products like probiotics, vitamins, and minerals.”
And yet if growers try to fill the coffers by planting fields of a particularly on-trend herb, any drop-off in demand once the fad fades could prove financially catastrophic. “So with any attempt at assessing demand a rollercoaster,” Lambert concludes, “suppliers are responding by finding multiple sources, diversifying geographically, and managing customer expectations.”
Bewicke agrees. “Maintaining a constant supply of high-grade botanical extracts today requires ever-greater commitments to quality and planning,” he says. “But key suppliers and brands are working together to build on the same high standards that brought these products to more consumers in the first place.”
They’ll need that shared strength to battle the next threat looming in botanicals’ path: global warming. “With more extreme-weather events in the forecast,” Lau says, “the botanicals we use will be impacted, whether in terms of availability, quality, or both.”
Here, again, it pays to think ahead. “Brands need multiyear, multi-regional plans to address the eventuality that severe weather will affect the botanicals they use. It’s not a question of if but of when that disruption happens.”
“The good news,” Quirk offers, “is that suppliers and growers are addressing sustainability issues like never before, generating supply resiliency from alternate sources, implementing the sustainable harvest of wild-crafted sources, and using sustainable agriculture to ensure continued supplies.”
Which helps explain why Lau, like others, remains so optimistic.
“We’ve been in this business for more than 40 years and were bullish on botanicals when my grandmother and parents got it all started,” he says. “We continue to be bullish because there’s nothing better than the gifts Mother Earth has given us. So it’s our responsibility to be good stewards of the land and of herbal traditions so that future generations can enjoy what we’ve had the privilege to experience. Let’s be the shoulders they can stand upon.”