Has COVID-19 changed the immune-health product landscape forever?

Nutritional Outlook, Nutritional Outlook Vol. 24 No. 1, Volume 24, Issue 1

The immune-health supplements category changed dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. What will the market look like moving forward?

Wear a mask, wash your hands, stay six feet apart, and avoid large gatherings. This is the policy we’ve all been told to follow in an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19. This is all good advice, but consumers are always looking for more ways to be proactive about their health. As a result, they turned to familiar products such as vitamin C and elderberry—and in the process drastically increased demand for immune health–related products. According to market researcher SPINS (Chicago), based on data on the 52 weeks ending November 29, 2020, the cold-and-flu category in the U.S. mainstream supplements channel grew fully 41.2% compared to the previous year, and in the U.S. natural channel, the cold-and-flu and immune-health categories grew 35.9% and 28.4%, respectively.

Making It Work

The additional demand for these products severely strained the supply chain last year. For retailers, manufacturers, and suppliers, the surging demand and the difficult circumstances of operating a business during a pandemic meant adapting, and quickly. Many of these changes may be indefinite, a sign of just how consequential the pandemic has been on our way of life.

“There was intense demand for a number of immune-support products during the early months of the pandemic, including zinc, vitamin C, elderberry, vitamin D, and hand sanitizer,” says Sharon Leite, CEO of The Vitamin Shoppe. “Due to the strong demand, there were some early inventory challenges that we overcame by fast-tracking additional units of immune-support products, leveraging our strong vendor and supplier relationships, and maximizing our supply chain and distribution capabilities.”

For The Vitamin Shoppe, and many retailers today, the way their customers shop has changed quite a bit. E-commerce has become critical. “Our total sales are currently trending 80% stores and 20% direct-to-consumer as our online business has grown. Prior to the pandemic, it was about 85% stores/15% direct-to-consumer,” explains Leite. “[The buy-online and pick-up-in-store model] has been very popular with our customers and has become almost one-third of our online demand. In August 2020, The Vitamin Shoppe launched on Instacart, which brings delivery in as fast as an hour from over 715 The Vitamin Shoppe and Super Supplements retail locations across the U.S. Our goal is to meet the consumer where and when they are most comfortable shopping.”

Over at Nature’s Way, Nishant Shukla, director of marketing, says, “The pandemic has had a profound impact at Nature’s Way in the way we conduct business and with surging demand. We are a health and wellness company, and our immediate concern was for our people who were still in our manufacturing facilities as essential workers. Our plants were already operating at pharmaceutical levels of quality control, but we implemented extremely stringent processes related to PPE and social distancing—well before government masking mandates.”

“For us, product demand is at historic levels,” he adds. “We’ve been around for 50 years, and it would be tough to find a time in which consumers have had as much awareness of immune health as they do right now.”

Sourcing dietary supplement ingredient raw materials from overseas was particularly difficult during the pandemic.

“Most notably, our production was running 24/7, and in Europe this is virtually unheard of. Additionally, once production was completed and ingredients packed and ready to ship, moving product from Europe to the U.S. was requiring an all-hands-on-deck approach,” says Leslie Gallo, president of elderberry ingredient supplier Artemis International (Fort Wayne, IN). “To meet our customers’ needs, we had to be nimble and make some strategic changes. Air freight was a given. Everything, from powders to liquids, was needed yesterday. One change was finding the best freight partner, as it was crucial to ensuring our pallets could get on the limited flights and not be bumped. We found such a partner and were able to arrange for guaranteed flight pickup/delivery and container space each week.”

New Product Development and Innovation

Although adapting to the strictures of operating during a pandemic was difficult, the reality is that where there is demand, there is opportunity. This means new product development actually increased as manufacturers hustled to deliver immune-fortifying products, particularly supplements, to new and existing customers. According to market research firm Innova Market Insights, supplement launches with immune-health claims in 2020 grew 4% globally compared to the previous year and accounted for nearly half of all immune-health product launches. Sports nutrition launches with immune-health claims grew 2%, making up 11% of all product launches with immune-health claims.

Immune health had traditionally been a seasonal market, but the pandemic drove home the importance of immune support year-round. Survey data from Innova Market Insights show that one in three global consumers said their concerns about immune heath increased during 2020 compared to the previous year, and 54% of global consumers have actively educated themselves on ingredients and procedures that could boost their immunity. When asked which element of health was most important in improving immune health, 64% of global consumers said, “choosing foods naturally high in nutrients.”

“Traditional formats like capsules and tablets continue to be big sellers for us, but we’re also participating in the shift toward experiential vehicles, such as gummies and beverages,” Nature’s Way’s Shukla notes. “We recently opened a state-of-the-art gummy facility, and demand out of that plant has been through the roof. People just love the experience of eating gummies. We anticipate our formats will continue to evolve as consumers look for unique ways to boost their immune health.”

In the wake of COVID-19, many companies are more strongly branding their products to convey their immune-health benefits, including on pack with color hues to match the hero immune-health ingredient in the formula, such as elderberry or citrus fruits or orange, Innova Market Insights adds. For example, Tropicana recently relaunched its Essentials range of products with a new design and name, Tropicana +, to better communicate the added health benefits shoppers are looking for.

“Innovation is crucial to every category we carry, from immunity to sports nutrition,” says The Vitamin Shoppe’s Leite. “Customers want the latest science, flavors, delivery mechanisms, branding, and marketing.”

Responsible Marketing

While the immune-health category presents a great deal of opportunity for manufacturers, the reality is that consumers are legitimately worried about their health, and immune-health supplements offer a source of protection. Of course, dietary supplements cannot claim to prevent or treat disease, but outside of COVID-19, there is a practical reason to protect one’s immune health during a pandemic when one considers that hospitals are often full and that even primary care physicians may be reluctant to examine patients in person. However, whether or not consumers are taking the right products is another story.

The herbal pharmacist David Foreman, RPh, for example, expresses concern about how the supplements industry is marketing its products to consumers, and whether it is being done so honestly.

“I feel that most consumers are undereducated in what they really need to be doing right now. Other than the masks, hand washing, etc., there is great confusion over what really should be done/taken/used,” Foreman says. “Regretfully, the natural products industry and how we market products is most likely the driving force in why they are taking and doing what they are.”

Because of the demand, more immune-health products are coming to market, and unfortunately, says Foreman, many are making deceptive claims that may mislead consumers. “To say that your product supports immune health because it contains 30 mg of vitamin C is a lie and deceptive,” explains Foreman. “Or, fish oil being for immune support. Yes, omega-3s support the inflammatory fight of immune health, but to infer to a consumer that this is the answer to boost their immune system to help fight a virus is deceptive.”

More accurate and descriptive labeling should be implemented to better inform consumers, says Foreman. For example, some ingredients could be more accurately labeled as providing short-term immune stimulation while others need more prolonged usage. “Immune stimulants like C and echinacea should be labeled for short-term immune stimulation, with cautions for those with autoimmune disorders,” explains Foreman. “Ingredients like Wellmune [from Kerry Group] should state that they are not stimulating the immune system and should be taken daily over time to support the immune system. This ingredient should also make consumers aware that it is not a short-term answer to their immune needs, as it takes three days to start working.”

Honest, more-accurate marketing is good for business and will ultimately help the immune-health category sustain long-term. Consumer education is also key. “Teach the consumer about the immune system, what it does, what it doesn’t do, how to stimulate it short-term, how to support it long-term,” says Foreman. “Teach about other methods such as eliminating poor diet choices like sugar and alcohol. All of it is really just about educating the consumer.”

This could also help consumers feel encouraged to buy multiple products for different types of immune support, ideally from a trusted brand, and may help secure a stable consumer base that will continue long after the pandemic is in the rearview.

“Consumers are looking for trusted brands, efficacious products, and accurate information during this unprecedented time,” adds Leite. “Our customers rely on us for quality, innovation, and expertise. We always view our merchandising strategy, including new launches, through that lens.”

Staying Relevant Long After the Pandemic

COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on all of us. Although it’s possible that, decades from now, immunizations and medical advancements will allow us to be less hypervigilant—certainly less terrified—about our health, in the near future it’s probably safe to say that our habits and awareness of healthy practices have changed. Masks could become a normal fixture in our lives, and immune health will cease to be a seasonal concern and instead become a year-round goal.

“Many of the consumer behaviors that developed during the pandemic have become ingrained lifestyle behaviors,” observes Leite. “Although these priorities may ebb and flow at times, we believe that general health and wellness concerns, including immunity support, will remain top of mind for consumers well into the future.”

While it’s amazing that COVID-19 vaccines were developed so quickly, rollout has been slow, and therefore herd immunity will not be achieved for some time. This means that demand for immune-health products will likely not slow down either. Even after a successful vaccine rollout, it’s difficult to imagine demand for immune-support products going back to pre-COVID-19 levels.

“Consumers are increasingly aware of the role their immune system plays in not only helping to combat COVID but helping improve their body’s ability to tackle other regular health concerns such as annual cold/flu season and other immune-system challenges,” says Gallo. “We are confident elderberry will not languish on store shelves—so much so that we are expanding our capacity in the fields and production to meet our customers’ forecasted and anticipated demands.”

“While we have experienced steady growth in sales of our elderberry extracts year-over-year, we anticipate that with the recent pandemic raising awareness of the immune benefits of elderberry, coupled with our own marketing initiatives, plus awareness within the functional food and beverage industry—all will help drive momentum,” Gallo says.