Demand for elderberry and ashwagandha helped the herbal dietary supplements market soar to record sales last year as consumers turned to natural products marketed for such conditions as immune health and stress support.
For the first time, annual sales of herbal supplements in the U.S. exceeded $10 billion, according to the 2020 Herb Market Report published by the American Botanical Council (ABC), a nonprofit education organization established in 1988.
Published in issue 131 of ABC’s quarterly, peer-reviewed market journal, HerbalGram, the market report is based on U.S. retail sales data provided by SPINS and Nutrition Business Journal (NBJ).
“These sales data suggest that millions of people seem to have realized that they have something called an ‘immune system,’ and that they can enhance its function by modifying their behaviors, including, but not limited to, an improvement of their diets, and the consumption of various dietary supplements,” said Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of ABC, in a Sept. 15 news release.
Last year, consumers shelled out an estimated $11.26 billion on herbal supplements, ABC disclosed, a 17.3.% increase from 2019 ($9.6 billion).
SPINS calculated sales of herbal supplements in two retail channels: the conventional multi-outlet (mainstream) channel powered by IRI, and the “natural enhanced” retail channel. Nutrition Business Journal based its 2020 figures on data from market research firms, company surveys, interviews with major retailers and industry experts, and other secondary materials.
Tyler Smith, managing editor of HerbalGram, wrote the report, along with Claire Morton Reynolds, senior industry analyst at NBJ, Farhana Majid, SPINS marketing operations associate, and Veronica Eckl, SPINS associate data manager.
Herbal supplement sales soared amid a worldwide pandemic that has claimed millions of lives.
“While there are little scientific or clinical data supporting the use of botanical dietary supplements to prevent or treat COVID-19, the fact that many consumers chose to use these products indicates a strong consumer interest in natural products as a means to improve their overall health and particularly to enhance their immune response to potential challenges,” Blumenthal said.
Alicia Richman, director of brand strategy and innovation with Gaia Herbs, said ABC’s report was not surprising to her or inconsistent with the data she tracks.
Consumers “in all areas of health and wellness,” including supplements, “are looking to find more natural ways to be … healthier and more well,” she said in an interview. And a group of them recognize “herbs have traditional benefits and proof behind them.”
One example is elderberry, whose sales skyrocketed in the wake of COVID-19.
“Elderberry has broken through, and you can see it in the big brands that are adopting it,” Richman remarked. Large brands incorporating elderberry into their product lines, she added, suggest the “everyday consumer” associates the herb with immune health.
In mainstream U.S. retail outlets, elderberry sales in 2020 surpassed $275 million, ranking as the top-selling herbal supplement ingredient, ABC divulged. Elderberry supplement sales in mainstream retail outlets have more than doubled annually since 2018, according to ABC’s news release.
“Elderberry is commonly used to support immune health and as a remedy to help alleviate cold and flu symptoms, and these potential benefits have been investigated in human clinical trials,” the report’s authors explained.
When COVID-19 emerged, sales of black elderberry “went through the roof across the board in all forms,” straining the supply chain, Richman said. But as the pandemic wore on and Americans increasingly stayed at home due to lockdowns, for example, significantly fewer people suffered cold and flu than in prior years, and demand for immune-focused products declined, she noted.
During the 2019 flu season from Sept. 29 to Dec. 28, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported more than 65,000 cases of influenza nationwide, but during the same period the following flu season, the agency reported just 1,016 cases, according to an article published in January by USA Today.
This summer, however, as concerns rose in the media over the COVID-19 Delta variant, Richman said she has observed some rebounding of sales in the immune health category, including elderberry. She described some consumers as “lockdown- and quarantine-fatigued” who are “looking for ways to go back out and feel good about it.”
Ashwagandha, apple cider vinegar
Last year, an herb used for respiratory conditions—horehound—achieved around $137 million in sales in the mainstream channel, an 11.4% decrease from the prior year, according to ABC. Still, the plant ranked as the second best-selling herbal supplement in 2020, ahead of cranberry ($101.3 million; 12.9% growth) and turmeric ($96.9 million; 3.1% growth).
Ashwagandha root, which is believed to increase the body’s ability to adapt to different forms of stress and is used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine in India, generated sales of $31.7 million—the largest percentage sales growth (185.2%) in the mainstream channel in 2020, ABC reported.
“Ashwagandha first appeared among the 40 top-selling herbs in the mainstream retail channel in 2018, when it was ranked 34th in sales,” shared the authors of the 2020 Herb Market Report. “Since then, as many mainstream consumers have become more familiar with the herb, annual sales have more than quadrupled, and ashwagandha was the 12th top-selling herb in 2020.”
Apple cider vinegar (ACV) was another herbal supplement that performed well in 2020. Consumers last year spent $79.2 million on ACV supplements. That’s a 133.8% increase from 2019, and ACV supplements represented the fifth top-selling herbal supplement in 2020.
This summer, Gaia Herbs launched a product with ACV to meet growing consumer demand. The ACV, Richman said, is incorporated into a black elderberry tonic with honey.
Managing stress and sleep
Beth Lambert, CEO of Herbalist & Alchemist Inc. (H&A), said ABC’s report wasn’t surprising—“2020 was quite a year of growth.”
“Interestingly as a smaller, more practitioner-oriented company, we saw a bit of a different mix in our top products than those in the mass markets,” Lambert shared via email. “Elderberry was in our top 10 products, but our customers turn to us for David Winston’s formulas.”
David Winston is founder and president of H&A. According to H&A’s website, the company’s formulas are based on about 300 herbs.
“Formulas for immune support, stress relief and cardiovascular support along with our adaptogenic tonics were all top sellers” in 2020, Lambert said. “But our customers also purchased digestive, men’s health and kidney-supporting products.”
Lambert also noted H&A’s men’s formulas outsold its women’s formulas.
Gaia Herbs has seen increased demand for products associated with some of the same health conditions identified by Lambert.
In 2020 and increasingly this year, Gaia Herbs has observed “huge upticks” in products marketed for stress, sleep and the liver, Richman disclosed. “Maybe, you’ve got the stress levels up, people not sleeping, and liver is most likely linked to alcohol consumption,” she added.
Finally, while 2020 was a phenomenal year for the herbal supplements category, brands are vying in a market that Richman described as “hyper-competitive.”
“Brands that are still private and small have to find a way to compete and stay relevant because you’ve got the Unilevers and Nestlés of the world that are fully interested in this space,” she said. “This has gone mainstream. The big guys see a reason to be here.”