The immune health category comes back down to earth: 2022 Ingredient trends for food, drinks, and dietary supplements

Nutritional Outlook, Volume 25, Issue 1

Despite a downturn in sales growth following an immense spike, the immune health category is still no slouch.

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wax and wane, the market for immune health products appears to be leveling off somewhat. If you look at figures from the previous year, in the wake of the pandemic, immune health ingredients saw double-, sometimes triple-digit, growth as consumers actively sought ways to support their immune systems. This brought new and existing supplement shoppers in droves to both online and brick-and-mortar to buy immune-related products.

For example, back in 2020, the cold-and-flu category in the U.S. mainstream supplement ingredients market grew fully 41% compared to the previous year, according to SPINS multioutlet channel (MULO) tracking, powered by IRI, of the 52 weeks ending November 29, 2020. According to SPINS natural enhanced channel tracking during that same time period, the cold-and-flu and immune-health ingredient categories grew 36% and 28%, respectively. That year, an ingredient like elderberry saw a 169% sales increase to reach $266 million in the overall U.S. mainstream supplement ingredients market, and a 72% sales increase to reach $53 million in the overall U.S. natural supplement ingredients market. This was on top of a sales gain already seen in 2019 for elderberry of 116% and 33% in the mainstream and natural cold-and-flu supplement ingredient channels, respectively, based on SPINS data covering the 52 weeks ending October 6, 2019.

This past year on the other hand, according to SPINS MULO tracking, powered by IRI, cold-and-flu ingredient sales in the U.S. mainstream supplements market declined by 12%, while SPINS natural enhanced channel tracking found that cold-and-flu ingredient sales fell 36%, in the year ending October 31, 2021. With that, popular immune health ingredients such as vitamin C (not Ester-C), while still being a top-selling ingredient in the overall mainstream supplement ingredients market, saw sales fall 8% last year, while elderberry only saw modest mainstream growth of 6%. In the natural channel, vitamin C (not Ester-C) also remained in the top 25 bestselling ingredients, but sales fell 15%, and elderberry sales fell 39%, compared to the previous year. Within the cold-and-flu category of the natural channel, nearly all of the top 10 ingredients within the category saw double-digit declines, except for zinc, whose sales only fell 3%.

“The pandemic caused a huge surge in products promoting immunity health, so as the height of the pandemic has decreased, so has an interest in these immune health products,” explains Haleigh Resetar, corporate communications specialist for SPINS (Chicago). “Some of this decline can be attributed to consumers diverting their attention to other health focuses such as cognitive health and digestive health. Shoppers have learned that taking care of all components of their health can increase their immunity and better help them in their pursuit of wellness. When products see such huge growth in one year, it is inevitable that the next year, they will see a decline in sales from the year before.”

Because of the high demand for immune health products when the pandemic began, manufacturers were buying as much raw material as they could to meet the demand, says Leslie Gallo, president of Artemis International (Fort Wayne, IN), which supplies elderberry extracts. “Now they are working through an abundance of inventory,” says Gallo. “Supplement fatigue is also a factor. Even with the option of gummies to stave off capsule weariness, consumers—even the ones who only started supplementing more recently out of concerns about COVID—are tired of shopping for bottles of ‘stuff to keep them healthy.’”

So, while suppliers are not seeing the same demand because manufacturers no longer feel the need to stockpile raw materials, many manufacturers are no longer seeing the same demand from customers. For example, Gaia Herbs’ Director of Brand Strategy and Innovation Alicia Richman says that its top immune herbs such as elderberry, mushroom, echinacea, and oregano experienced 200% higher sales in March 2020, compared to the previous year. Gradually these numbers fell off, but for the most part held steady. In March 2021, however, says Richman, the company’s immune products saw declines as large as 20%-30%, compared to the previous year.

“Those immune items that jumped the highest (elderberry) also declined the hardest following the initial spike,” explains Richman. “But in general, all immune-related herbs saw significant jumps in early 2020, followed by declines the next year, and now a recent uptick in the last few months.”

The initial spike these products experienced was simply unsustainable. What has happened since then is likely more of a correction than a decline. Not all brands experienced this equally, either. Some brands—such as Pharmavite, for example—say they’ve been experiencing consistently good performance from the category between 2020 and today, also seeing a recent spike.

“The VMS [vitamin, mineral, supplement] category has had strong engagement in the immunity segment from 2020 to today. Initial indications are that 2022 is continuing the trend at above-historical consumption levels. Immune is established as part of the category’s overall wellness growth strategy, including vitamin C, D, elderberry, and zinc,” explains Bryan Donaldson, executive vice president, sales, for Pharmavite. “The immune segment is growing at 10.6% in the latest four weeks versus 11.1% in the latest 26 weeks. Initial start to 2022, we have seen a strong acceleration across the immune segment. We attribute this to the flu/cough and cold season as well as the most recent COVID variant, Omicron.”

Since COVID-19’s initial outbreak, there have been a number of factors at play affecting sales of immune health products. Richman points out that rising infections and fear at the start of the pandemic motivated consumers to purchase immune health products, while subsequent lockdowns and isolation made them less important.

“There seems to be a general correlation between lockdowns easing, people getting sick again, and then a corresponding increase in immune product sales,” explains Richman. “As COVID drags on, it is likely that immune sales will begin to return to industry-leading levels.”

The vaccine was also a gamechanger, Gallo points out, putting less priority on supplement usage. However, the rise of new variants of the COVID-19 virus means that these products remain relevant.

But how do you combat the fatigue with supplement usage?

Alternative Dosage Formats

Because of COVID-19, consumers are forced to approach immunity much differently than they used to. What was once a seasonal concern has become constant, and taking measures to protect oneself can be exhausting, from personal protective equipment to consistent supplement usage. When it comes to supplements, a number of challenges arise, such as finding the right product and being consistent with its usage, as well as barriers like cost and availability. There are also other need states such as sleep and stress that customers may want additional support for, creating a growing list of supplement products to buy and take on a regular basis.

“There is a sense of weariness among consumers, so it’s important to make wellness as easy as possible,” says Richman. “That often means products like gummies, but it also makes clean products important for consumers. Immune products will always be needed, but our hope is to make it easier for consumers to enjoy their supplements, to feel good about them, and to build increased trust in our brand as the marketplace sees more new entrants.”

Ingredients such as elderberry can be particularly useful when offering alternative dosage formats, says Donaldson. “Our elderberry products, for example, are not only available in several different delivery formats that appeal to differing consumer preferences—including gummies, fizzy drink mix, capsules, and syrup—but also include vitamin C and zinc to provide further immune support.”

Fortified foods and beverages may be more desirable to consumers, too, says Gallo. “We as an industry need to provide better solutions to consumers by helping them supplement through foods they eat and beverages they drink,” she explains. “The good news is that many of our ingredients are versatile—what we’ve been putting in capsules or gummies can be pretty easily formulated to fortify a food or drink. Fortified foods and drinks give consumers a seamless way to support their overall wellness, including immune and cardiovascular health.”

Ingredient Bright Spots

Despite some declines in sales compared to the previous year, ingredients such as vitamin C, elderberry, and echinacea remain, and will continue to remain, top-selling and important ingredients in the immune health category. However, there are notable ingredients that show outstanding performance that are worth keeping an eye on. Zinc, for example, continues to show immense growth in the immune health category, growing 103% in the mainstream cold-and-flu ingredient market last year and 22% in the overall natural supplement ingredients market, remaining among the top 25 bestselling natural-channel ingredients.

Another is vitamin D, which was in the top 25 overall bestselling supplement ingredients in both the mainstream and natural markets last year, growing 26% and 19%, respectively. What’s unique about vitamin D is that it is not purely an immune health ingredient, but the body of research on vitamin D’s impact on COVID-19 infection and recovery is making it rather desirable as an immune product, in addition to the other areas it functions in, such as bone health.

“Vitamin D is an ingredient that’s shown strong growth and will continue to. It’s got the benefit of being an immune health product, but not exclusively an immune health product,” says Scott Dicker, senior market insights analyst for SPINS. “Everyone’s kind of looking at these adjacent categories right now, [and ingredients] that have the overlap, that can be marketed and positioned as both, really benefit. So, if someone maybe started taking vitamin D for their immune health and then maybe they stopped…then they get interested in bone health and they see vitamin D there again, they may go, ‘I was taking this for my immune health as well. I might as well keep taking it. It’s got all these benefits.’ So, I think vitamin D has a strong case to be made when people are picking and choosing which supplements they’re buying, and the fact that it crosses over into so many health focuses really bodes well for the future.”

The same can go for zinc. So, using ingredients with a good deal of overlapping benefits may offer a similar level of convenience to consumers as alternative dosage formats. Manufacturers should also consider multi-ingredient, multi-benefit formulas. Immune-and-sleep-support supplements already exist on the market, offering consumers a single product solution for their major concerns. Continued innovation here would certainly be welcome.

“We have seen increased demand for all of our immune products since the start of the pandemic, but we have also seen demand and interest increase in other key areas that contribute to one’s overall wellbeing,” Donaldson points out. “Achieving quality sleep and managing stress—wellness states that are closely linked to one’s overall health and immunity—are two areas that consumers continue to say have suffered since the onset of the pandemic.”

Manufacturers should continue to explore synergistic ingredients and health benefits that will help consumers streamline their supplement regimen. The demand for immune health products remains, but at a more reasonable level, so coinciding health concerns such as sleep and stress may take precedent for some consumers. Luckily, because immune health pervades nearly all aspects of human health, immune ingredients can complement products in multiple categories, providing added value. That, combined with innovative, delicious, and convenient dosage formats, will help immune health stay at the forefront of people’s health regimen.