Nutritional supplement business has time on its side

Posted: Friday, December 05, 2003

The $19 billion nutritional supplement industry appears to have time on its side.

With Americans ingesting more vitamins and minerals as they age, sellers of these and other products in the broadly defined industry are poised to prosper as graying baby boomers strive to fend off everything from osteoporosis to memory loss.

''Hopefully, they'll live to be 85,'' Harvey Kamil, president of NBTY Inc., a manufacturer and retailer of nutritional supplements, said of his most important customer base.

Kamil and other industry officials credit boomers with energizing the industry during the 1990s, when the oldest members of the generation born between 1946 and 1964 began reaching their 50s.

''Their desire to live longer, healthier lives and to prolong their youth colors their decisions,'' said Al Haberstroh, whose firm, Montgomery Advertising, handles marketing for The Vitamin Shoppe chain. ''All of this works together to create a sort of mindset and market.''

Nationwide sales of nutritional supplements grew 34 percent between 1997 and 2002, and are expected to top $20.8 billion by the end of 2005, according to Nutrition Business Journal, a San Diego-based publication.

Yet while demographic trends point in a favorable direction for the industry, it does have challenges.

Sales of herbal and botanical supplements, which account for more than a fifth of industry sales, declined about 3 percent in 2002 a trend analysts attribute to doubts about the efficacy of some products and concerns with the health risks associated with others.

''The expectation of some consumers was 'I'll take St. Johns Wort and I'll never be depressed,' or 'I'll take ginkgo biloba and I'll never forget,''' said Grant Ferrier, editor of Nutrition Business Journal. But scientific studies have shown such expectations to be unrealistic.

The herbal supplement ephedra, used to lose weight and boost athletic performance, has been even more problematic. It has been linked to scores of deaths by the Food and Drug Administration and several states have banned sales.

Kamil and other industry officials said products proven to be harmful should be forced off the shelves and that regulators should be tougher on companies making exaggerated claims through infomercials and over the Internet.

''The industry has gotten a bad reputation, but the majority of the companies follow the law,'' said Judy Blatman, spokeswoman for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a Washington-based trade group.

Just how much the controversies surrounding herbal supplements such as St. John's Wort and ephedra affect sales of traditional vitamins and minerals, which make up a third of industry sales, is tough to say.

While the rapid growth in sales of vitamins and minerals during the 1990s has slowed in recent years, officials mostly attribute it to the maturation of the business.

Nutrition and other health products found primarily in health food stores in the '70s and '80s began lining the shelves of drug stores, grocers and discount retailers in the '90s, helping to fuel a market that was already burgeoning as boomers sought to stay healthy and youthful. In fact, more than half of all sales now belong to mass merchandisers.

Internet retailers also latched on to the fad and now, with calcium (for bones) and echinacea (for boosting the body's immune system) becoming as common in boomer households as exercise equipment and organic foods, analysts and executives say sales growth has naturally tapered off.

That said, the shelf space occupied by vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements is growing, CVS Corp. spokesman Todd Andrews said, although the company would not provide details.

Also, ''consumers have become more sophisticated in what they want,'' Andrews said, forcing the drugstore chain to organize its supplement shelves by specific health concerns rather than just lumping all products under the same brands together.

A survey last spring by Simmons Market Research Bureau found that more than 34 percent of Americans ages 40-54 had consumed a vitamin, mineral or other dietary supplement once a day over the course of a month. Consumption was higher 46 percent among respondents 55 and older, according to the survey of 20,802 adults.

Not content, though, to bank its future on the growing voluntary consumption by self-motivated boomers, the industry is hoping that long-term scientific studies will help convince a mostly skeptical health care establishment that preventing not just treating ailments is possible and that prescribing vitamins and minerals can be an important part of medicine in the future.

''That is definitely the next big frontier,'' said Jeffrey Blumberg, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University.

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