Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is also known as Indian ginseng and has been gaining traction in the mainstream US market with consumers embracing its wide-ranging body of health benefits, which include stress busting, cognitive function, men’s health, immune support, sleep, metabolic wellness, adrenal function, sports performance, and more.
According to a monograph from the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP), the herb has a history of use in Ayurvedic medicine that dates back as much as 4,000 years to the teaching of renowned scholar Punarvasu Atreya, and in subsequent works that make up the Ayurvedic tradition. The name of the herb derives from Sanskrit, and means “smells like a horse”, which refers to the strong smell of the root which is said to be redolent of horse sweat or urine.
Many suppliers are reporting impressive growth in sales for their product. For example, Sabinsa has seen “a very robust 35% growth from 2014 to date for our Ashwagandha sales”, said Shaheen Majeed, the company’s marketing director. “That is expected to increase in the years to come, as we develop the market more consistently,” he added.
“Sales of Ashwagandha and other adpatogenic products peak during the winter season when immune health is a concern,” said Majeed. “Ashwagandha as a multifunctional herb which can be categorized under immunobooster, rejuvenating, energy supplements, stress busters and men’s health products. Dietary supplements in some of these categories are growing, likely due to health concerns related to stress, anxiety, lack of sleep or insomnia.”
Sales of Senoril are also booming, said Bruce Abedon, PhD, director of scientific affairs for NutraGenesis, which offers an extract of both the root and leaf under the Sensoril brand under license from Natreon, Inc. “The ingredient has enjoyed consecutive double digit annual growth since Sensoril’s introduction to the marketplace over ten years ago.” The ingredient is used in several hundred SKU’s to help support a range of health end points, he added.
The most eye-catching growth is reported by Ixoreal Biomed Inc., which only has one product: KSM-66 Ashwagandha root extract. “KSM-66 Ashwagandha has been around on the market for just 5 years, but appears in more than 375 products of major dietary supplement companies in the US alone,” Ixoreal’s Kartikeya Baldwa told NutraIngredients-USA. “Over the past 3 years, the sales and revenues of KSM-66 have grown YOY at a consistent rate of 200%. This financial year is expected to be the best till date with the sales growth of 225% relative to last year.”
Despite the booming sales, consumer understanding of ashwagandha is still in its infancy, said Baldwa. “The fact that the ashwagandha market is growing by leaps and bounds indicates that the market is still nascent,” he said. “While many know of its health benefits, they only know limited subsets of the applications rather than the full range. Fewer still know where it comes from.”
But interest is clearly growing and there are several reasons for this increased interest, said Dr Abedon. “Ashwagandha’s multifunctional properties address health categories that many Americans are in need of addressing such as stress reduction, enhanced energy, and improved mental clarity. Clinical trial testing on Ashwagandha nutraceuticals has also accelerated.”
Sabinsa’s Majeed: “Withania somnifera and its benefits are beginning to be well recognized,” he said. “It has been traditionally used to improve immunity as an adaptogen. However, recent efforts have focused on standardized extracts with effective concentrations of identified active biomarkers and their scientific validation.
“Wider applications of Ashwagandha for a number of specific health benefits will be the next big news on Ashwagandha to reach consumers.”
The herbs has a history of use dating back millennia so is there any innovation in the category? Each supplier has a different perspective on it. For NutraGenesis’ Dr Abedon, themost important innovation that has occurred in the Ashwagandha space is the ability to more than double the concentration of health-enhancing glycowithanolide bioactives. This was achieved by using both Ashwagandha leaves and roots, as in done for the company’s Sensoril product (which reaches a standardization level of ≥10% glycowithanolides).
“Traditionally Ashwagandha powder used in Ayurvedic medicine was derived from roots only but this limited the bioactive content because roots have lower levels of bioactives than leaves. Because the combination of leaves and roots in Sensoril produces such a novel, effective nutraceutical, the proprietary extraction process was awarded multiple United States patents,” he said.
For Ixoreal’s Baldwa, the innovation is coming from the product forms and delivery matrices for the ingredient.
“KSM-66 is neutral to taste, heat stable, shelf stable, and almost fully water-soluble,” he said. “This is why we see KSM-66 not only in capsules and tablets, but also in energy bars, soft chews, chocolates, ready-to-drink beverages, chewing gums, teas/coffees, malted powders. Clients have even formulated burgers, soups and muffins using KSM-66.”
“A little history may be useful,” said Sabinsa’s Majeed. “Originally the herb was used in Ayurvedic formulations as a tincture or a syrup. With conventional dietary supplements, the advent of the dried formulations as powder, tablets, and capsules was at one time seen as new step forward in the delivery system. However in such delivery systems, stability of the raw material during formulation and storage is important, further, certain delivery forms require a more purified herb to be able to provide a therapeutic benefit. Since there are several compounds with steroidal backbone which are responsible for the health benefits of Ashwagandha, proper standardization with the right biomarkers is important.
Majeed added that innovation in the supply chain is also critical for the ingredient (and many other Ayurvedic herbs). “Increasing demand of this herb has also put pressure on its cultivation,” he said. “Harvested roots mixed with aerial parts and other plant parts have become a major concern in the procurement process. While the aerial parts have medicinal properties, the roots are the part of the plant that have been traditionally used in the Ayurvedic formulation and its adulteration with other parts should be avoided.
“To overcome this problem, Sabinsa has started screening the raw material using the HPTLC method to identity any adulteration from other plants parts. This technique and a robust vendor qualification program has proven helpful to avoid any possible adulteration.”
Emerging health benefits?
The list of potential health benefits for the herb continues to grow, and the suppliers are investing in clinical research to support their product.
“The health benefits of ashwagandha that are clinically proven with credible research and trials are primarily those that are already documented and advocated in traditional ayurveda texts,” said Baldwa. “The “news” is primarily in fresh clinical evidence for traditional benefits rather than in new benefits. That said, it is certainly exciting to see fresh evidence for traditional applications that have not been treated properly in the modern medical literature: for example, the applications related to weight reduction, muscle function, and sleep quality.”
Sabinsa’s Majeed said that preliminary data from scientists at Louisville University using a customized Ashwagandha extract provided by the company showed inhibition of cervical cancer cells (Cancer Lett. 2012, Vol. 326, pp. 33–40 . doi:10.1016/j.canlet.2012.07.017).
“These preliminary findings will definitely prompt more investigational studies in the anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer studies on this unique herb,” he said.
Joint health is also an emerging health benefit, said Dr Abidon, with the company’s Sensoril ingredient reportedly supporting healthy joint function and promoting both mobility and comfort in joints, according to a recently completed human clinical trial.
Sonya Cropper, Marketing & Innovation for Verdure Sciences, told us that, with consumer awareness of the health damages associated with stress, and the desire to lighten stress load, ashwagandha should be well poised to be a major ingredient in stress management.
And beyond these health areas, some of the areas that excite Sabinsa are in the cognition space and the sports health nutrition arena, said Majeed.
“Ashwangandha is an herb to watch as more qualified research is published and a better understanding of Ashwagandha’s components leads to more products in the marketplace,” hesaid.
Dr Abidon also sees continued growth for the ingredient over the next five years, building on the previous decade’s growth.
“The potential for Ashwagandha will continue to grow over the next five years as more consumers learn about Ashwagandha’s superior health benefits and more companies recognize the value of adding Ashwagandha to new or existing products. The need to address stress, fatigue, and other challenges of modern living is not going away and Ashwagandha nutraceuticals can help.”
But how big can the ingredient be? “As with most product categories in their infancy, the growth potential for the ashwagandha in the US is very large indeed,” said Ixoreal’s Baldwa. “We see it becoming a more common herb like Ginseng in the next few years.”
The Healthy and Natural Show
Organic India's Amy Keller will present an introduction to Ayurveda: The Science of Life at the upcoming Healthy and Natural Show at Chicago's Navy Pier, May 5-7, 2016. For more information and to register, please click HERE .