Consumers value dietary supplements during a pandemic

In the midst of a pandemic, consumers are putting greater value on the role of nutrients in good health.

While COVID-19 has taken its toll on almost every facet of our lives, one way in which it may leave consumers—and the dietary supplement industry—stronger in its wake is in the attention it’s focused like nothing before it on the inexorable link between health and nutrition.

The consequence: Nutrients are trending.

How else to explain the rampant out-of-stocks that plagued supplement shelves in the early days of lockdown, or the rapt conversations that mere “civilians” are now holding about immune-boosting botanicals or stress-moderating minerals—civilians who at best might have popped an all-purpose multivitamin prior to the pandemic and called it a day.

And don’t forget that researchers, as well, are exploring how everything from vitamin D and zinc to functional mushrooms could bolster our defenses—if not against this disease then perhaps against those yet to come.

So the tide is rising for nutrients. And while no responsible nutrition professional would in good faith promote any nutrient as a preventative, treatment, or cure for COVID-19 or other diseases, there’s no harm in celebrating nutrients’ newfound cachet. And there are lessons to be learned in examining what it might mean for consumers, and the industry’s, health going forward.

Ahead of the Game

The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN; Washington, DC) has certainly been examining just that and, in conjunction with Ipsos, released results of a survey1 on the topic this past August. And in summary, says Brian Wommack, senior vice president of communications for CRN, “The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a reminder for the majority of Americans to take care of their overall health and wellness.”

And though all Americans are paying heed to that reminder, regular supplement users, it appears, find themselves ahead of the game.

To wit, CRN’s COVID-19 survey found supplement regulars in particular to be even more health conscious in light of the pandemic than the general public—at a rate of 87% for regular users versus 78% for non-users, Wommack says.

“Additionally, supplement users are significantly more likely to be practicing many healthy lifestyle habits compared to non-users throughout COVID-19,” he notes. For example, 54% of supplement users say they’re staying hydrated, compared to 51% of non-users. Fully 44% say they’re eating a healthy diet versus 35% of non-users. Supplement users also tend to exercise more regularly according to the survey than do non-users, at a rate of 40% compared to 35%, respectively. And supplement users appear to be managing stress more effectively (38%) than non-users (35%), too.

Stepping Up Their Regimens

“Further data from CRN’s COVID-19 survey demonstrates that there’s also a subset of supplement users who are increasing their regimen throughout the pandemic,” Wommack notes, which is of particular interest to the industry.

Overall, 43% of supplement users reported changing their supplement routines since the start of COVID-19, with that change coming in the form of an increase in intake for 91% of them. Within that group, 46% are adding new supplements to their existing routine, 25% are taking the same supplements more regularly, 22% are increasing their doses or resuming the use of supplements they’d taken in the past, and 11% are starting a supplement routine specifically in response to the pandemic.

In the Market

That naturally leads to the question of which supplements these consumers are in the market for, and Wommack again points to the CRN COVID-19 survey as finding increased use across the board of a number of dietary supplements among fans who have signaled changing their nutrition routines in response to the pandemic.

Those basic multivitamins certainly came in strong, for example, with 59% of supplement users taking more. Vitamin C followed at 44%, with vitamin D in third at 37%. “Survey data also demonstrated modest boosts in supplement intake for zinc, probiotics, and elderberry,” Wommack notes.

Supplement users are turning to these nutrients for a range of reasons—and in the hopes of achieving a range of outcomes. But at least for now, their principal motivations are overall immune support, followed by health-and-wellness benefits, which Wommack says were the most-common reasons supplement users cited for increasing their supplement intake during the pandemic.

“Additionally, at least one-third of supplement users who changed their supplement routine also mentioned reducing the risk of serious illness and taking greater control over their health as reasons for increasing intake throughout the health crisis,” he adds.

Do the Right Thing

All of which should buoy those in industry who have been spreading this message since well before anyone had even heard of the novel coronavirus.

Alas, as can happen in any crisis, there are those who have taken advantage of the vulnerability and hope excited by this crisis to twist that message into one of nutrients-as-cures, or treatments, or preventatives.

But, as Wommack is quick to note, those voices are the rarity, and the industry as a whole has responded by calling them out and redirecting the message to focus on what supplements truly can accomplish.

“Early on in the pandemic and over the course of the year, CRN issued warnings to companies and consumers alike to avoid marketing or using dietary supplements that are presented as treating, curing, or preventing COVID-19,” he points out. “And since the pandemic’s start, FDA has sent a number of warning letters to companies responding to claims that their products can prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19.”

He says the organization stands with and applauds FDA’s quick action and urges its continued enforcement against and “aggressive prosecution” of companies that pitch products with what are unsubstantiated—and illegal—claims.

Direct-to-Consumer

Wommack adds that CRN also speaks directly to consumers about smart supplement use and the wisdom of avoiding products that make unfounded claims with respect to COVID-19 or any other disease. The group even suggests that consumers report such products to FDA.

“We encourage consumers to educate themselves when selecting which products to use and which companies to purchase from,” he says. Namely, the organization advises consumers to choose products from recognized brands or store brands from trusted retailers, avoid products making drug-like claims, do their homework before starting a new supplement regimen, and keep an open dialogue with their healthcare providers on their supplement use.

After all, putting all those pieces together is the surest route to making their supplements work for them, pandemic or not. And when supplements work for consumers, the industry winds up healthier as well.

References

  1. Council for Responsible Nutrition press release. “Dietary Supplement Usage Up Dramatically During Pandemic, New Ipsos-CRN Survey Shows.” Published August 20, 2020.