While vitamin C sales were down 2.4% in the natural channel to $31.43m, they were up 3.7% in the conventional channel to $189.85m.
However, growth in the prior-year period was far higher (sales were up 11.3% to $215.31m in the 52 weeks to October 1, 2010).
‘There has been surprisingly little genuine innovation in the category’
Given the maturity of the category, however, any growth is encouraging, noted Anthony Almada, chief science officer at Scientific Food Solutions, the firm behind FAST-C, a vitamin C ingredient claimed to blow rivals out of the water in the bioavailability stakes.
“Unlike vitamin E, which has taken some shots across the bow recently, vitamin C has had a very positive press, but there has been surprisingly little genuine innovation in the category and when firms do come out with new claims, you often find that they are not backed by human clinical data.”
And while there had been some innovation in terms of novel delivery formats for vitamin C from jelly beans and dissolvable strips to chewing gums, few contained meaningful doses, he added.
Brand leader Ester-C – which contains calcium ascorbate plus small amounts of vitamin C metabolites dehydroascorbate, calcium threonate, xylonate and lyxonate - was acquired by supplements giant NBTY in 2006 and claims its “main benefit .. is its quick absorption and retention in the immune system”.
NBTY declined to be interviewed for this article, but cites two clinical studies on the Ester-C website to support its claims. The first, published in Advances in Therapy in 2006 , claimed it was 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.
New market entrant FAST-C, made by Californian firm Scientific Food Solutions (SFS), contains a proprietary blend of alkalizing minerals, plus Sabinsa’s patented bioavailability enhancer BioPerine to create a 90%+ acid-neutralized vitamin C.
The subject of two US-based double blind, randomized crossover clinical trials, FAST-C gets into the blood significantly faster than Ester-C, while urinary excretion is slightly less, suggesting superior retention by tissues, claimed Almada.
However, progress on plugging it as a branded ingredient had been frustratingly slow, and Ester-C continued to dominate the market, he admitted.
“Fast-C has been available as an ingredient for a couple of years, and is now in products including AdvaSorb from Quality of Life Labs. We’ve also just struck a licensing deal with [supplement formulator] Advanced Orthomolecular Research (AOR) for the Canadian market.
“However, it has been a challenge getting some of the big firms in the US to look at it so out of sheer frustration, we decided to create a business – Napa Nutritionals – focused on incorporating it into finished products we could sell directly to retailers.”
Should a major firm wish to enter into an exclusive partnership to use Fast-C in a, the retail product currently available through Napa Nutritionals could be pulled very easily, he said.
‘It’s a case of ‘I’ve already got five different skus of vitamin C on my shelf – so what’s special about yours?’
SFS president Gretchen Reece said she was targeting retailers in the natural channel.
She added: “There are companies out there that put out a product and support it with a lot of marketing and there are companies like ours that are actually trying to create a better product.
“But retailer buyers are interested in something genuinely different, so we just have to educate the market. It’s a case of ‘I’ve already got five different skus of vitamin C on my shelf – so what’s special about yours?’
“The market is commoditized but they are looking at value, not just price, so what matters is being competitive in the tier of the market in which you operate.”
Vitamin C and consumers
Reece, who has recently been conducting in-store demonstrations/sampling with consumers for Fast-C supplements, said customers' views were typically very polarized, with a split between "those who understand their value and are curious about what is new and those who see absolutely no value in vitamin supplements whatsoever".
She added: "Vitamin C users wanted to know if Fast-C is buffered as that was their main physical problem in taking vitamin C. They liked and understood the value of retention for great antioxidant support. Many did not realize that vitamin C affects bones, teeth, skin collagen generation and eye health."
* Combined Channel sales comprise US retail sales through natural supermarkets (excluding Whole Foods) and conventional food/drug/mass merchandise outlets (excluding Walmart) .