Ester-C – which contains calcium ascorbate plus small amounts of vitamin C metabolites dehydroascorbate, calcium threonate, xylonate and lyxonate - was originally sold as branded ingredient when NBTY acquired it in 2006.
It was then relaunched as a branded supplement in 2007 and is now worth $11m at retail level in the FDMx channel (food, drug and mass merchandise excluding Walmart).
Jim Flaherty, senior vice president marketing and advertising, said: “Sales of Ester-C continue to grow. According to Nielsen data for FDMx channels, Ester-C dollar sales were up 18% vs a year ago in the latest 13 weeks, outpacing the vitamin C category, which was up only 0.7% over the same period.
"In the 26 weeks to October 29, Ester-C dollar sales were up 22% vs 3.6% growth for the category."
Meanwhile, unit sales were up 33% in the 13 week period and 40% in the 26-week period.
He added: “Since the brand's launch, NBTY has invested heavily in advertising and research. We launched new forms of Ester-C, and continue to explore other deliveries. We have also updated Ester-C's packaging design."
Growth drivers included increased promotional activity, new formats, and greater brand awareness through advertising, he said.
“In recent years, we have increased promotional activity. When the brand first launched, it was mandated that only a handful of trade promotions be run each year (four to five $1 temporary price reductions).
“We are now running BOGO (buy one get one at a discount) promotions in conjunction with other US Nutrition brands, and are able to get Ester-C featured in circular ads.”
New forms: Powdered format and gummies
New formats beyond 500mg and 1,000mg tablets had also driven sales, he claimed.
“In 2010 we launched a powdered form, which is still in limited distribution, and in 2011 we launched the hugely popular Ester-C gummies.”
While the standalone vitamin C category was a mature category that had not seen a significant level of investment in recent years, retailers had started to “partner with us to promote Ester-C more frequently through trade promotions” in a bid to generate some interest, he said.
While Fast-C had recently emerged as a competitor, “it is in the health food chains more than the mass market”, he noted.
“The only major brand competitor to Ester-C is Emergen-C. However, the Emergen-C user is very young compared to the Ester-C user. For gummies, the major competitor is Vitafusion Power C. But they use regular vitamin C, whereas our gummies contain the superior Ester-C.”
NBTY cites two clinical studies on the Ester-C website to support its claims about "quick absorption and retention in the immune system".
The first, published in Advances in Therapy in 2006, suggests it is better tolerated than regular ascorbic acid in sensitive individuals.
The second, published in the same journal in 2008, found “no consistent difference in plasma levels” of subjects consuming regular vitamin C and calcium ascorbate with metabolites, although those consuming Ester-C had higher concentrations of vitamin C in leukocytes (white blood cells) compared with vitamin C alone after 24 hours.
A third study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 1994 - but not mentioned on the Ester-C website - found no difference between Ester-C and regular ascorbic acid with respect to the absorption and urinary excretion of vitamin C.
A fresh study is currently underway with results likely to be finalized shortly, vice president, marketing, Whitney Messens, told NutraIngredients-USA.
Sales of vitamin C supplements – the biggest single category in the vitamins and minerals market - were up 2.8% to $221.27m in the year to October 1 across conventional and natural channels combined, according to figures provided to NutraIngredients-USA by SPINs.*
While vitamin C sales were down 2.4% in the natural channel (natural supermarkets excluding Whole Foods) to $31.43m, they were up 3.7% in the conventional channel (FDMx) to $189.85m.