Steep fall from grace
Bilberry was once of the better selling herbal supplements on the market in the food, drug and mass channel according to the American Botanical Council, which for years has published its annual Herb Market Report. More than a decade ago bilberry ranked No. 15 on the list of the top 20 best selling botanicals in that channel, with $1.78 million in sales. The data from that year, 2010, showed that bilberry sales had declined 10% from the year before. In 2005, ABC’s data showed $2.1 million in bilberry sales in the mass channel.
More recently, when ABC’s list expanded to the top 40 selling herbs in the mass retail and natural channels, bilberry has failed to make either list. The cutoff for making either list in 2020, the last year for which data is available, was $8.4 million in sales for rhodiola in the mass channel and $2.7 million in sales for chaga mushrooms in the natural channel.
So bilberry sales may have increased slightly over the years, but the botanical has not enjoyed the overall huge rise in revenue for the market as a whole. According to ABC, the overall market for herbal supplements grew from $5 billion in 2010 to $11.3 billion in 2020.
Misinformation about ingredient’s effects
Maypro executive Dan Lifton told NutraIngredients-USA that his company believes that some misinformation about the ingredient’s effects combined with ongoing adulteration issues has caused the ongoing market swoon in the United States. The primary source of misinformation, Lifton said, is a perennial story about the use of bilberry jam by British bomber pilots during World War 2 to increase their night vision. While an attractive tale, the historical accuracy of it is hard to pin down. And a well publicized placebo-controlled study aimed at that specific endpoint came up with a null result.
Whether the story is true or not is beside the point, he said. It has been repeated so often that it has become part of the legacy of the ingredient, and some consumers may be aware of how it had been disproved. The end result is the story in the marketplace, at least in the English speaking countries, of a product that probably doesn’t work.
“It was perhaps some poor luck, too,” Lifton said. “There was some research for bilberry but not as much as for some of the other eye health ingredients.”
Competition combined with adulteration
Lifton pointed to the large scale trials using the AREDS and AREDS2 formulations, which made the reputations of carotenoid ingredients such as lutein and zeaxanthin and steered many consumers looking for eye health benefits in that direction.
Maypro also believes that ongoing adulteration of bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) has had an effect. The plant, which is essentially a wild relative of the cultivated blueberry, has so far only been available is a wildcrafted form, with hundreds of gatherers raking the forest floor in countries like Finland to gather the ripe berries. It’s time consuming and inherently expensive, which opens the door for adulterators, who substitute either cheaper berry species or dyes to mimic bilberry’s color profile.
When consumers started taking part in the bilberry craze in the late 90s (one reference from the The Washington Post citing older NBJ data claimed $40 million of bilberry products were sold in 1998), many of them may have purchased adulterated, ineffective products. That could have contributed to the market’s downward spiral, Lifton said.
Building a message of quality in Japan
But Lifton noted that bilberry is still highly popular in Japan, which is where Maypro is sourcing the standardized bilberry extract it is now carrying in the North and South American markets. The ingredient, branded as Bilberon, is manufactured by Japanese firm Tokiwa Phytochemicals, which sources its berries in Scandinavia and ships them, flash frozen, to Japan for processing.
“They have been around for more than 100 years,” Lifton said. “They were there from day one when bilberry started to establish a foothold in Japan. Japanese consumers will pay extra for a product they consider to be superior, and that usually means one made in Japan.”
Lifton said Tokiwa has been working to build the science around Bilberon in an effort to help reinvigorate the market beyond Japan. (Lifton noted that Italian ingredient supplier Indena, which manufactures a competing validated, high quality bilberry extract, has done studies, too.)
Lifton said Tokiwa has sponsored studies that show Bilberon can reduce eye fatigue, improve focused vision and relieve eye dryness.
Going beyond eye health
And Lifton said the most recent addition to that research portfolio could help Bilberon play in the post pandemic marketplace with millions of consumers adjusting to work from home situations.
Tokiwa recently was granted a US patent (No. 11154581) on the ingredient’s ability to ease neck and shoulder pain. While it might seem a stretch to claim that an eye health ingredient based on vascular and antioxidant modes of action could have muscular effects, Lifton said research has shown that straining to see a screen clearly in a sitting position has shown a greater activation of the trapezius muscles. So, better vision equals a more relaxed upper body and less stress and pain.
“It has enabled us to go beyond the traditional eye health field,” Lifton said.
Denis Alimonti, director of Maypro’s proprietary ingredients division, said that expansion includes some aspects of sports nutrition.
“A lot of sports nutrition brands are starting to explore this ingredient in connection to some other offerings we have for mental focus. And esports category is growing and the neck and shoulder stiffness pain result is of interest there, too” Alimonti said.