Whole-Food Supplements: A Growing Force


Whole-food supplements are a growing force in the supplements aisle.

The dietary supplement retail landscape has shifted significantly over the last decade. Today, there is a very different product mix compared to the mainly conventional dietary supplement brands that formerly dominated retail shelves 10 years ago. With strong consumer demand and growing retail sales, whole-food supplement brands now occupy prominent shelf space in the dietary supplement aisles of most natural product retailers.


What Are Whole-Food Supplements?

Whole-food supplements differ from conventional multivitamins in that they deliver optimized potencies of essential vitamins and minerals through a variety of nourishing whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, grains, soy, probiotics, and nutritional yeast. Conventional multivitamin supplements, on the other hand, are made exclusively with isolated nutrient forms-for example, ascorbic acid (vitamin C) or pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6). Isolated nutrient forms are often chemically synthesized or fractionated from a food, plant, or natural source into an isolated chemical form that is devoid of any food constituents.

A key difference and benefit that whole-food nutrients have over conventional isolated forms is that they are delivered in a complex food matrix that also provides a full spectrum of phytonutrients and other food constituents, also referred to as co-factors. Phytonutrients such as polyphenols and flavonoids are powerful antioxidants, which are known to play an irreplaceable role in protecting cellular health and maintaining a healthy inflammatory response in the body. Co-factors play a vital role in nutrient bioavailability, as well as in the proper assimilation and retention of nutrients in the body. And, finally, because of their enhanced bioavailability, whole-food nutrients are easy to digest and gentle on the digestive system.


Making a Whole-Food Supplement

Producing an authentic whole-food supplement is very challenging. It is a process that not all companies can perform. A significant amount of science, as well as artistry, lies behind the process of making a whole-food nutrient. One of the biggest challenges is how to preserve the food’s inherent nutritional profile while successfully optimizing nutrient potency and shelf stability.

Many factors can influence nutrient potency and stability. One is the percentage of water that remains in the finished product. In order to produce a stable whole-food nutrient for use in a dietary supplement, it is important that the foods be dehydrated so that the dried food’s total moisture content is 3% or less. The process of reducing water is essential in order to deactivate naturally occurring enzymes that will degrade the food matrix and nutritional value over time. Removing water is also critical to prevent the growth of any microbes and bacteria that may be naturally present.

Today, the most common forms of food dehydration in the nutraceutical industry are spray drying and drum drying, both of which rely on the application of extremely high temperatures to remove water from the foods. Although these techniques are effective for reducing the moisture content below the 3% threshold, the high temperature combined with extended periods of heat exposure typically result in a dried concentrated food powder with diminished taste, color, and nutritional profile, compared to the fresh-food equivalent. This change in the food’s physical properties is due primarily to the loss of aromatic phenolic compounds and other nutrients like carotenoids, which impart the food’s flavor, color, and aroma. Although there are alternative drying technologies available, which are gentler and designed not to apply direct heat to the foods, only a handful of dietary supplement and whole-food nutrient manufacturers employ such alternative technologies today.


Whole-Food Supplements: Retailer Friend or Fad?

There has certainly been speculation within the natural dietary supplement industry that whole-food supplements are just a passing fad. However, when you review the trend data of dietary supplements in the natural products industry over the last 10 years, it is clear that whole-food supplements have proven longevity and sustainability in the marketplace. Combine this with an emerging consumer preference for whole-food supplements, and it is no wonder why this segment continues to experience double-digit growth.

According to market researcher SPINS, the marketing boom of the whole-food brands pushed 52-week retail sales of whole-food supplements up to approximately $47 million, from $41 million from the same time last year, for a very healthy average dollar growth rate of 15%.1 This growth rate is well over and above the total dietary supplement category’s growth of 5.8%, according to SPINS.

The growth of whole-food supplements is attributed to many factors, including the fact that an expanding number of retailers are selling a wider variety of whole-food supplement brands, as well as a broader consumer acceptance and preference for whole-food dietary supplements over conventional natural vitamin brands.

In a recent consumer attitude and usage survey specifically on whole-food supplements, 62% of all the participants said they believed that whole-food supplements are “absorbed better by the body.” Additionally, 45% of those surveyed said they believed whole-food supplements are “more natural” compared to other kinds of vitamins.2

Finally, the same survey also identified a cluster of core consumers who regularly purchase whole-food supplements and found that this segment of consumers not only had the longest history of dietary supplement usage in general but that they also took the highest number of supplements routinely and were willing to spend the most per supplement. The survey found that this group spent on average $76 per month on supplements-an amount considerably higher than other consumer clusters that were identified. This is good news for whole-food supplement brands, which tend to have a higher price point compared to conventional vitamins. To the retailers who stock whole-food supplements on their shelves, such usage data exemplifies that core natural product consumers not only believe that whole-food supplements are better for their health, but that they are willing to pay more for these health products.  


  1. SPINS Retail Scan Data. Natural Retail Channel. 52-Weeks ending January 19, 2013. Total Dietary Supplements Vitamin and Mineral Category.
  2. Pure Branding: Consumer Attitudes and Usage of Whole Food Supplements. Total of 927 participants surveyed November 2012 to January 2013. Unpublished data.
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