In the mood for ashwagandha: 2022 Ingredient trends for food, drinks, dietary supplements, and natural products

Nutritional Outlook, Volume 25, Issue 1

Ashwagandha is seeing consistent growth driven by demands in mood-support products, but its versatile benefits are still waiting to be tapped into.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is leading the pack of herbal ingredients for mood support especially in the U.S. natural retail market for dietary supplements. According to SPINS’s natural enhanced channel tracking of the U.S. supplement ingredients market for mood support during the 52 weeks ending October 31, 2021, the ingredient experienced 33% sales growth over the previous year, now standing just behind magnesium as the natural channel’s leading mood-support ingredient. Ashwagandha also ranked 9th in the natural channel’s top 10 bestselling ingredients for sleep. On the whole, ashwagandha is now one of the natural channel’s top 25 bestselling ingredients, growing 21% to reach $16 million in sales in 2021. A year ago, ashwagandha did not even rank among the natural channel’s top 25 bestselling ingredients. Clearly, ashwagandha is on the rise.

For many reasons. “Life is stressful, and shoppers are finally demanding that there be methods to relieve stress that are natural, which is where ingredients like ashwagandha come in,” says Haleigh Resetar, corporate communications specialist for SPINS. Ashwagandha is a trailblazer for other botanicals, too. Says Resetar: “We can expect that the introduction of ashwagandha into products will lead the way for other herbal remedies to enter the market that offer not only stress-relieving [but other] benefits. As far as entering the conventional market, it is slowly becoming a better-known ingredient, and as consumers continue to purchase products, more conventional products will pick up the hints.”

Mainstream sales had been growing. According to figures published in the American Botanical Council (Austin, TX) journal HerbalGram, in 2020 ashwagandha sales grew 185% in the U.S. conventional multioutlet (MULO) channel compared to 2019, based on tracking from SPINS for the 52 weeks ending December 27, 2020. In Nutritional Outlook’s Ingredients to Watch coverage last January, we also reported SPINS figures showing a large spike of nearly 4000% for ashwagandha ingredient sales in the mainstream MULO sleep supplements category, based on figures provided by SPINS for the 52 weeks ending November 29, 2020.

While this growth has not continued for ashwagandha in the mainstream in 2021, ashwagandha’s double-digit growth in the natural channel in 2021 means that the growth ashwagandha has shown over the years was not merely a fluke. Ashwagandha is seeing steady growth in a volatile market.

Mood support, particularly stress management, has been an ongoing concern for many consumers since before the pandemic. However, the struggles everyone faced these past two years have put into perspective just how important it is that we take care of ourselves.

“Chronic stress negatively impacts various aspects of health, including physical and mental performance, sleep, body composition (e.g., accumulated body fat and loss of muscle), digestion, and immune functions,” says Anthony Thomas, director of scientific affairs at Natreon (New Brunswick, NJ), maker of Sensoril ashwagandha. “Thus, by discoursing the negative effects of excessive stress on the body and mind, ashwagandha exhibits broad therapeutic potential. Ashwagandha is [also] seeing growth in the sleep-support category, a top concern among consumers.”

The proliferation of ashwagandha in popular mainstream product brands is also helping raise the ingredient’s profile, says Alicia Richman, director of brand strategy and innovation, Gaia Herbs. “Ashwagandha has seen consistently strong growth the last couple years across all channels. Certain products, like Goli’s gummies, are driving a lot of that growth, but [so is] a broader awareness of ashwagandha,” explains Richman. “Currently, nearly all items still focus on stress, and often as a combined formula with other herbs/botanicals. Sleep is likely the next area to see innovation with ashwagandha. One noteworthy item is Vicks ZzzQuil Pure Zzzzs with ashwagandha.”

“Ashwagandha has been growing in popularity over the last decade, first in the natural channel and now in the mass/multioutlet channel due to its recognition for reducing the negative effects of chronic stress on both physical and mental health,” offers Thomas. “Interest in health-promoting nutraceuticals and dietary supplementation has increased in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in ingredients and products for diminishing excessive stress, worries, and disrupted sleep cycles, as well as supporting immune functions. Hence, name recognition for ashwagandha has grown substantially and continues to grow in part due to its efficacy in addressing these key health concerns among consumers.”

Clinical substantiation is probably the most critical factor to consider when developing a dietary supplement and/or functional food and beverage. Current clinical evidence on ashwagandha is overwhelmingly dedicated to stress and sleep, which is therefore driving product development in that direction.

“In the natural products industry, formulators especially pay attention to science. Their ability to generate timely products depends on keeping a finger on the scientific pulse. Ashwagandha root extract has enjoyed a large body of new science over the past decade, and this double-blind, placebo-controlled human clinical science has greatly boosted the position of ashwagandha root extract in the market,” says Kartikeya Baldwa, CEO of Ixoreal Biomed (Hyderabad, India), maker of KSM-66 ashwagandha. “Much of the science [for KSM-66] is specifically focused on stress and mood.”

This is bound to change, of course, as the body of scientific evidence for ashwagandha expands beyond mood and stress. The research already exists in some cases.

Explore how ashwagandha may fit into your product lineup. “Athletic performance is an area in which ashwagandha is still underutilized but now seeing a lot of traction,” says Baldwa. “In human studies, we saw that KSM-66 ashwagandha improved strength, stamina, recovery, mental function, and cardiorespiratory endurance. Ashwagandha is clearly a potent agent for enhancing athletic performance. Besides, clinical studies have also corroborated benefits of ashwagandha for better sleep, sexual function, menopause, and thyroid health.”

This is echoed by Thomas, who states, “Manufacturers should also look to capitalize on the potential benefits of ashwagandha in other high-demand categories: 1) active lifestyle/sports nutrition, 2) body weight and composition management, and 3) digestive health.”

King of Adaptogens

The full versatility of ashwagandha has yet to be tapped, but as an Ayurvedic ingredient, and an adaptogen, ashwagandha has numerous potential benefits that will create added value for manufacturers in many types of products.

Many consumers already recognize the benefits of Ayurvedic herbs, but adaptogenic herbs, as a category, are still growing in profile. “Interest in the search term ashwagandha has grown markedly across the entire country in the past few years, particularly with the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Google Trends, whereas relative interest in the search term adaptogen has remained far lower and is limited to various subregions of the country, although there looks to be an upward trend in recent years,” says Thomas. “As one of the premier adaptogen ingredients and fastest-growing ingredients within dietary supplements, ashwagandha is anticipated to help pave the way for other adaptogens, especially lesser-known adaptogens popular in Ayurveda such as shilajit and amla fruit (amalaki).”

While ashwagandha is overshadowing adaptogens, the adaptogen category overall is benefiting from the ingredient’s popularity, motivating clinical investigation of other adaptogenic herbs.

“Adaptogens have been very much on the rise for at least 15 years. The term has unquestionably gained traction, and many hundreds of articles on adaptogens have helped to popularize the term and the adaptogenic botanicals,” says Baldwa. “Ashwagandha has helped with this popularization as it enjoys a stream of positive human studies, and this helps the whole category.”

Ultimately, this means that interest and adoption of ashwagandha will continue long-term as the body of research on the ingredient, and its fellow adaptogens, grows.

Dosage Formats

Capsules and tablets will likely remain the predominant dosage format for ashwagandha, for the time being, but ingredient suppliers and manufacturers are continuing to innovate so that ashwagandha can be more easily used in functional foods and beverages. In fact, says Baldwa, “It is the gummies, bars, and beverages that are gaining a huge traction in popularity for ashwagandha.”

The fact remains that ashwagandha does have organoleptic challenges, but these can vary depending on the ashwagandha ingredient. With ingredients like ashwagandha rich in phenolic compounds, bitterness is the main challenge when incorporating into food. Therefore, high solubility and low effective dosage are ideal features to look for in your ashwagandha extract—which, when paired with flavor maskers or modulators, helps overcome whatever flavor challenges that may exist. A soluble product that doesn’t require a high dosage is also advantageous for multi-ingredients formulas.

“Gummies are currently the fastest-growing delivery format for ashwagandha, and Sensoril ashwagandha is no exception,” says Thomas. “However, with increasing consumer demand for functional foods and beverages, incorporation of ashwagandha-derived ingredients into coffee, coffee alternatives, and other functional beverages and ready-to-mix powder formulations as well as chocolates is growing in popularity.”

As a result, there is a huge opportunity and incentive to lead the way in innovation of not just ashwagandha extracts but also product formulation, including flavor modification. Currently, Natreon is in the process of being acquired by Kerry, which is a leader in taste and nutrition for the food and beverage industries.

“Kerry Taste and Nutrition offers extensive technical/scientific expertise, financial resources, and connections across industries, which will support expansion of Natreon ingredients, including its flagship, Sensoril ashwagandha solvent-free extract,” says Thomas. “The incorporation of botanical extracts with complex (phyto)chemical makeups generally presents a flavoring challenge for tasted products, such as functional foods and beverages, as well as potential stability issues. As ‘pill fatigue’ and the demand for alternative delivery formats to capsules and tablets increases among consumers, developing technologies to overcome potential challenges for the incorporation of Sensoril ashwagandha into functional foods and beverages will provide tremendous opportunity to expand its market presence.”

This partnership will help progress the use of ashwagandha in the functional food and beverage market, and spur competitors to push innovative solutions for manufacturers as well. In turn, manufacturers will have the opportunity to develop interesting products featuring ashwagandha, allowing them to exploit the many health benefits the ingredient boasts, including stress and sleep support.