Herbal supplement sales rose 5.5% in US in 2012, ABC says

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Flax seed or oil was the biggest seller in the natural channel.
Flax seed or oil was the biggest seller in the natural channel.

Related tags Herbalism Herb

Herbal dietary supplement sales increased 5.5% in the United States in 2012 according a new report in HerbalGram, the publication of the American Botanical Council.

Overall sales reached $5.6 billion in 2012, according the report, which relied on data from Nutrition Business Journal, SPINS and Symphony IRI. Overall sales of herbal supplements have shown steady, low single figure growth over the past 12 years, rising from $4.2 billion in 2000, according to NBJ estimates.

The report did show an interesting dichotomy, though, according to Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of ABC.

“Herbal supplements sales were up 14.7% in the health food channel (without counting Whole Foods),”​ Blumenthal told NutraIngredients-USA. “In the mass market, according to IRI, sales were down 1.1%.  So mass market is flat. I don’t know why it’s flat.  I think it’s interesting.  Overall sales have continued to climb steadily.”

Consumer education

Blumenthal did note that an engagement factor could be at work.  The natural channel has always been set up better for education and one-on-one customer interaction, which function as critical supports for the sales of dietary supplements.

“The natural channel has always been much more educational and missionary in its sales approach.  You have to educate your customer,”​ Blumenthal said.

“A lot of retailers have talked about this that they are acting like nutritionists for their customers. The mass market isn’t set up and never has been for education,”​ he said.

Sales by channel

NBJ broke down the sales by channel as follows: in the FDM channel, about $1 billion in herbal supplements were sold.  In the natural channel, the figure was $1.9 billion and in direct sales channels, which includes multilevel marketing organizations, online sales and the practitioner channel, the figure was $2.7 billion.  The 2011 figures for those channels were $0.97 billion, $1.8 billion and $2.6 billion respectively.

NBJ calculated a modest 2.2% rise in herbal supplement sales in the FDM channel, whereas SymphonyIRI data, also cited in the report, showed a slight decline.  This was part due to a big change in the way that company now reports the channel. The company now includes data from military commissaries and select club and dollar retail discount chains along with the previously measured supermarkets, drugstores, and mass market retailers.  So the (1.1%) figure includes more wiggle room than usual, as the company’s data crunchers are trying to compare apples and oranges.

“In general, however, the FDM channel represents continued mainstream acceptance and success of numerous popular herbs, including bilberry fruit extract, black cohosh root, garlic, ginger root, ginkgo leaf extract,”​ the report states.

Top 10 lists

The top 10 herbs in the FDM channel, according to SymphonyIRI, were cranberry, garlic, saw palmetto, soy, gingko, milk thistle, black cohosh, echinacea, St. John’s wort and ginseng.

Of these, only garlic and milk thistle showed sales gains at 12% and 7% respectively.  All the others showed moderate to steep declines accrodign to SymphonyIRI, with soy showing the steepest drop at (24%).

According to SPINS, the top 10 herbs in the natural channel were flax seed or oil, wheat or barley grass, turmeric, aloe vera, spriulina/blue green algae, milk thistle, elderberry, saw palmetto, echinacea and cranberry. 

Among the biggest gainers in sales the channel was turmeric, which increased almost 40%.  Things green did well too: wheat and barley grass, aloe and spirulina sales all increased by 18% or more.

The biggest gainer on a percentage basis was chia.  While the herbal ingedrient’s total were still down the list in 15th​ place, it showed the strongest growth at 123%.

A big confounding factor in gathering sales data in the natural channel has always been the nonparticipation by the channels’ biggest player—Whole Foods. “Some estimates suggest that sales of herbal dietary supplements in Whole Foods might constitute as much as 50% of the entire natural channel’s sales, but such estimates are not confirmed,” the report states.

In the direct sales channel, the report lists the top 10 herbs as “Chinese herbs,” horehound, cranberry, black cohosh, flax, saw palmetto, cinnamon, garlic, valerian and ginkgo (horehound is listed as an ingredient in throat lozenges).

Combination formula sales rising faster

The report also has sales broken down by “total single herb” and “total combination herbs” for the past three years. The interesting takeaway there is that the sales of combination formulas are rising faster than those for single herb products.  Sales of single herb products totaled $3.6 billion for 2.7% growth, whereas combination formulas sold $2 billion for 10.8% growth.

To read the entire report, click here​.

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