As to the size of the prize - and whether the US market in particular is growing, however - the data paints a confusing picture.
SPINS: US calcium supplement sales are down in conventional retail channel, but up in natural stores
Figures from SPINS suggest a declining US retail market for calcium supplements (sales were down 6.7% to $440.1m across natural/conventional channels combined in 2012), with modest growth in natural outlets (+ 2.5% to $31.9m) offset by a slump in the conventional channel* (-7.3% to $408.2m).
However, SPINS does report growth in sales of foods fortified with calcium (+2.7% to $45.6m across natural/conventional stores combined in 2012).
Euromonitor: US calcium supplement market has been growing steadily
In contrast, Euromonitor International paints a far rosier picture of calcium supplement sales in the USA (which it says were up a healthy 8.1% to $1.3bn in 2012), although it’s hard to compare its figures with the SPINS data as Euromonitor includes sales from more retail outlets, the internet and direct selling companies in its data set.**
However, while Euromonitor says retail sales rose from $1.1bn in 2007 to $1.3bn in 2012, it says volumes remained flat over the same period.
Eggshell calcium (ESC): ‘Demand has literally boomed in the last six months’ - Stratum/ESM
But confusing market data notwithstanding, where are the growth opportunities?
One player that appears to have found a growing niche is Stratum/ESM, a joint venture between Stratum Nutrition and ESM Technologies, the manufacturer of ESC eggshell calcium, which also contains trace minerals such as strontium, boron, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc.
Demand has “literally boomed in the last six months“, said Chris Haynes, director of sales for Stratum/ESM.
“We have seen an increase of nearly 100%. Retail brands featuring ESC are showing significant growth with more products coming to market.“
ESC contains important transport proteins and does not need to be taken with food for optimal absorption
So what’s so special about eggshell calcium versus other more established sources?
Says Haynes: “ESC contains almost 40% elemental calcium, similar to other forms of calcium carbonate, and much higher than most non-carbonate calcium sources. But unlike other forms of calcium carbonate, it contains important transport proteins and therefore does not need to be taken with food for optimal absorption.
“In addition, because ESC is such a pure, ultra-refined source of calcium, it does not cause the constipation or other gastrointestinal symptoms associated with other calcium sources.
“Many sources of calcium also contain high levels of heavy metals, resulting in potential health risks as well as Proposition 65 mandatory labeling in California, whereas the heavy metal content in ESC is 50-times lower than Prop 65 requirements and 100-times lower than USP requirements. When ESC is tested at the 100% DV level, heavy metal content is nearly undetectable.“
And this has proved a key sales driver, he contends: “The heavy metal concerns for Prop 65 has been a driving force... Sustainability and a natural message are also important for marketing’s needs which ESC fits well also.“
Ingredion: The calcite structure of Aquamin is such that it increases surface area and reduces astringency and dryness…
Another firm that has found a niche in the market is Ingredion, which distributes Marigot’s algae-derived calcium ingredient Aquamin (which also contains magnesium and other minerals) in the North American market.
Ingredion’s nutrition marketing manager Patrick Luchsinger says Aquamin - which is harvested off the west coast of Ireland - is gaining ground rapidly in a mature market owing to its superior organoleptic properties and ‘green’ credentials.
“The calcite structure is such that it increases surface area, reduces astringency and dryness and allows for products containing plant-based minerals to be more palatable", he says.
“The magnesium and trace minerals found in Aquamin positively differentiate it as a mineral source, delivering benefits beyond calcium alone.”
Coral LLC: We have just finished a new processing plant built close to the mine and it is in production
As for coral calcium, while bad press caused by a few unscrupulous players temporarily dented growth in the market a few years ago, sales since have recovered strongly, according to Alberto Galdamez, sales director at Nevada-based Coral LLC .
The firm, which makes a branded supplement line from coral which is sold through health food stores, plus private label finished products for a range of customers, also supplies bulk raw ingredients to supplement makers.
Its coral calcium is harvested from ‘above sea’ white fossilized coral heads which are protected beneath a layer of soil.
“Sales in the finished product line are steadily increasing”, he says. “We have seen a new trend which is large companies, even pharmaceutical types, seeking finished products formulas which they can market under licensing agreements. Bulk sales are increasing due to the introduction of our new natural calcium carbonate.
“We have just finished a new processing plant built close to the mine and it is in production. Our partners are in the process of getting product certifications such as Friends of the Sea, Kosher, Halal, NSF, Organic, etc., as well as implementing the standard cGMP safety and quality controls. This plant will allow us to mine not only the coral minerals but oyster shell and natural calcium carbonate as well.”
What puts us at a disadvantage is the cost of shipping
But what are prices doing?
“The prices of calcium carbonate derived from the natural calcium carbonate beds and oyster shell beds compared to calcium from limestone deposits are very competitive", he says. "Even though calcium carbonate from fossilized coral has a higher purity and bio-availability, we are keeping our prices similar to those of inferior calcium carbonate forms.”
But he adds: “What puts us at a disadvantage is the cost of shipping; calcium carbonate from limestone is readily available in different parts of the world. However, we are seeing a huge increase in interest from the larger global companies.”
Given the maturity of the market, “the focus now is finding more bio-available forms of natural calcium”, he claims.
”Companies as well as consumers are becoming aware that isolated calcium is not the best option; multi-mineral whole food supplements combined with other ingredients such as Vitamin D3, Vitamin K1 and K2, seem to be more in demand.”
* The SPINS conventional channel figures cover natural, organic, specialty gourmet, and health & wellness positioned products sold in the food, drug and mass channel including military, club, dollar stores and Walmart.
**Asked to explain the disparities between the Euromonitor International figures and the SPINS data, Euromonitor head of consumer health research Monica Feldman told us: “SPINS only covers natural and organic brands, even in the convenient channels like Walmart, but… they only capture a portion of the sales by specializing in the natural/organic marketplace... Euromonitor covers more channels including non-store retailing e.g. internet, direct selling and brands standard, private label, natural and organic. We feel confident in our numbers based on solid trade sources and interviews with leading companies/retailers used in our research.”
SPINS marketing associate Jennifer Fuller added: "Our scope within the conventional channels is limited to natural and specialty products only. Also, Euromonitor may be taking into account retailers that sell primarily vitamins and supplements such as GNC and Vitamin Shoppe – whereas we currently do not track these outlets."
Click here to read part two of this article on calcium: Chews, sachets and ‘petite pills’… Calcium supplements, the next generation (part two)