Antioxidant-rich superfruits give the supplement aisle a fighting chance
UNTIL ABOUT FIVE YEARS AGO, very few people had heard of these fruits. Many have exotic names like goji berry and açai, are sourced from the hillsides of interior China or the Amazon rainforest, and bring with them ancient stories of health. Modern-day research shows they are full of antioxidants, and therein lies their true power. According to SPINS data, sales of superfruit-containing supplements in conventional supermarkets currently total $8.3 million, up nearly 31% from the $6.3 million in sales recorded for the same period a year earlier.
The top superfruit supplements in supermarkets are those containing cranberry, which account for 82% of the segment, or $6.7 million in sales. Other leading superfruit supplements tracked by SPINS, ranked in order of sales, include noni, cherry fruit, mangosteen, goji berry, açai, pomegranate, blueberry and lycopene (found in tomatoes, red watermelon, guava and pink grapefruit). Other ingredients often classified as superfruits include cupuaçu, yumberries, rose hips, black currant, grape seed extract, papaya, chokeberry, acerola, aronia and guarana.
Supermarkets saw an uptick in sales of supplements in general in 2007, with total vitamins and minerals up 3%, according to the Nielsen Co. Sales of nutritional supplements were up 9.3% in grocery stores, outpacing the 7.8% growth of that subcategory in food, drug and mass market channels overall.
Sales of superfruit-containing supplements are likely to continue growing, as additional exotic fruit varieties become available in the United States. Consumers increasingly recognize the benefits of superfruits, and the number of new products continues to proliferate. In 2007 alone, 77 new SKUs containing pomegranate, açai, goji berries, noni, rose hips, black currant or mangosteen were introduced, according to Datamonitor's ProductScan Online database of new products. That compares to 49 SKUs introduced in 2006, 24 in 2005, seven in 2004 and eight in 2003.
Rick Moller, category director of natural and organic at distributor Tree of Life, said that sales of food-based supplements in general, including both fruit-based antioxidants as well as other products like omega-3-rich fish oils, are up almost 20%. “The basic alphabet stuff is pretty boring and flat,” he added.
Debbie Eddy, director of marketing at distributor United Natural Foods, agrees that one of the biggest trends right now is in food-based supplements, including fruit-based products from brands such as Rainbow Light and Dynamic Health.
Nielsen research provided by Pharmavite, marketer of the Nature Made brand, shows a recent slowdown in the “herbs” category, led by decreases in supplements containing echinacea (down 8% in 2007), garlic (down 15%), St. John's wort (down 5%) and soy and black cohosh (down 11%). The downturn of herb-based supplements has been stemmed somewhat, however, dropping just 2% in 2007, and one of the bright lights within the segment was a superfruit, cranberry, which increased 13%.
One challenge facing marketers of superfruit supplements is competition. These same ingredients are often featured in fresh foods with exceptionally high nutrient content throughout the store.
“The trend toward eating better with superfoods and food fortified with vitamins and minerals has undeniably hurt the supplement industry,” stated a November 2007 report on the U.S. vitamin and mineral category from research firm Mintel. This situation is particularly pronounced with superfruits, which are found in a wide range of products including juices, energy drinks, ice creams, sorbets, yogurts, sauces and smoothies — particularly natural and organic varieties — not to mention fresh in the produce department.
“We're pushing the fresh, and we educate our staff on the benefits and why they are good for you,” said Wade Carmichael, project manager of lifestyle merchandise and a natural and organic specialist at Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va. “Supplements are for people who aren't getting enough in what they eat.”
Ukrop's carries a variety of superfruits, both fresh and in juices from Odwallah, Naked Juice and Bolthouse Farms. “We have most of the superfruits in our juice set that is located in our produce department,” Carmichael said, noting that juices are particularly appropriate for exotic, less-familiar fruits such as noni, açai or mangosteen.
“Most customers are looking for the easier liquid form,” he said.
Although superfruits don't have much of a presence in Ukrop's supplement sets yet, the section is always expanding, and Carmichael says the chain will consider adding superfruits as needed, particularly under the banner of its Full Circle natural and organic store brand, as supplier Topco Associates brings out new products.
Other factors favor sales growth in supplements with superfruits. Many of the exotic varieties are imported from Brazil, Southeast Asia, India, China or Australia. They may be more expensive than more common superfruits, such as blueberries or blackberries, and some also have a very short shelf life, tending to rot shortly after harvesting. These situations open up opportunities for supplements. Sales data suggest that exotics are driving the category, with those fruits ranking among the fastest-growing in the past year, according to SPINS. Examples include supplements containing goji berries (up 6,721.8%), açai (up 252.4%) and mangosteen (up 67.2%). Pomegranate, which is widely available fresh, also was a fast grower, showing a sales increase of 460.2% last year.
Some observers dismiss the idea that the wide availability of superfruits in fresh or juice forms, or in functional foods, negatively affects the supplement category. Eddy believes that the growing number of foods containing superfruits, like those containing omega-3s, is actually beneficial.
“All the attention being paid to nutrition is helping the category,” she said. “Some people are turning to foods and some to supplements.”
Core consumers of supplements tend to shop for products that address particular conditions or functions — digestion, inflammation, autoimmune diseases, heart health and brain function, to name a few — rather than shopping for a particular ingredient.
“It's less about the supplements themselves and more about the issues they're dealing with on a day-to-day basis,” said Melissa Abbott, senior trendspotter and analyst at Tinder Box, a division of the Hartman Group.
Superfruits can address several conditions. Their antioxidant content — which can be double or triple that of other fruits — helps rid the body of free radicals; it is believed this process helps prevent a number of conditions including heart disease, cancers, arthritis, Alzheimer's disease and diabetes. Tart cherry has been linked to cardiovascular health and joint function; blueberries and açai with brain health; and pomegranates with cardiovascular health. Some multiple-benefit products combine superfruits with other ingredients, such as cranberry plus flaxseed.
Superfruit supplements, therefore, can be merchandised with other supplements offering similar benefits. For example, omega-3 products address heart health and joint health, among other conditions, and could be displayed alongside tart cherry, with signage calling out the two products' common benefits.
Carmichael says Ukrop's merchandises its supplements mostly by line item, but some are grouped by condition.
“By line item is prettier, but by condition is a little more consumer-friendly,” he explained, adding, “We're very limited, space-wise, being a conventional store.”
Superfruits come in a wide variety of delivery systems, reflecting another trend in supplements. In a November 2006 report, Packaged Facts, a division of Marketresearch.com, reported IRI estimates showing that liquid supplements of all types grew by $5.6 million from 2001 to 2005.
Some of the forms in which superfruit supplements are available include liquids, juice concentrates, gummy candies, strips, bars, drops and soft gel capsules. Eddy points out that juice concentrates, especially those containing goji berries, are showing strong growth, despite prices ranging from $14.99 for a 16-ounce blueberry concentrate to $33.39 for a 32-ounce mangosteen or goji concentrate.
As with any supplement category, superfruit sales will benefit from consumer education. Superfruits come in many forms; there are subtle differences in benefits from one ingredient to another under the superfruit umbrella; and they are increasingly available outside the supplement department, all of which can add to shoppers' confusion. In addition, consumers often hold a perception that superfruits are most effective if fresh, and they are often uncertain about the dosage, sourcing and efficacy of superfruits when delivered through supplements.
“Retailers and supermarkets in particular that have employees dedicated to their natural sets and can talk intelligently and answer people's questions, I think those are the most successful,” Eddy said. “Consumers wander into the natural supplement section and are a little lost. Sometimes just talking it through can help lead to a purchase decision.”