Better off safe than sorry: COVID-19 concerns, healthy food trends are driving immunity supplement sales

The immune supplements sector continues to grow as more shoppers have embraced it.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Ben Franklin told Philadelphians in 1736. Nearly 300 years later, his adage lives on, with COVID-19 continuing to heighten interest in supplements purported to boost immunity. In 2020, sales hit $6.58 billion, nearly a 12% increase over 2019 in a category that has traditionally experienced single digit annual growth, according to Nutrition Business Journal. This year should also be promising. 

Top-selling immune defense supplements and ingredients include old standbys like probiotics, zinc, and vitamins C and D3, as well as more recently popularized herbs such as turmeric and elderberry. There also is increased demand for all natural, plant-based supplement ingredients; new delivery forms like gummies, drinks and powders; and children’s immunity supplements. Private label is expanding, too.

Most Popular Supplements Chart

“During the pandemic, people increased awareness and concern for immune health,” said Maria Brous, director of communications at Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix. “We’ve experienced increased vitamin and supplement sales, specifically those with elderberry, zinc, and vitamins C and D. This was across brands, price points, [delivery] forms, and both single and blended formulas. We also saw digestive health and stress/sleep segments thrive for their correlation to immunity and well-being.”

Immune supplements cannot prevent or cure COVID-19, but a healthy immune system may help avert serious illness if the virus is contracted. This thinking has attracted new users and driven sales.

Piping Rock, for example, saw sales of its Nature’s Truth zinc supplements increase 454% for the four weeks ending Sept. 11, 2021 over the previous four-week period, said Kimberly Vigliante, senior vice president of wholesale sales and marketing. Vitamin D sales grew 100% while elderberry products’ sales climbed 63%.

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Shoppers’ growing knowledge regarding natural foods and antioxidants is helping to drive growth as well. Research by probiotics supplier ADM Protexin identified health and immunity among 2021’s top five global food and beverage trends. It found that 31% of consumers buy healthier products and half prefer food and beverages containing naturally beneficial ingredients. “Consumers have increased daily fruit and vegetable intakes, looking for natural ways to increase their immunity,” said brand manager Alexa Wood.

They want supplements with plant-based natural or organic ingredients. APAX’s Feel Good brand offers immune support, vitamin-enhanced supplements containing ingredients from real fruits and vegetables. “It’s not just about taking a vitamin,” said Mike Frink, vice president of sales. “Natural and organic changed how people think. COVID amplified that. Even rural America is thinking twice about what they’re eating.”

COVID-19 concerns and natural ingredients trends are attracting more young consumers to the immune defense segment. Historically, many supplement users have skewed older.

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“Customers have changed from being largely boomer age on up,” said Raj Konanahalli, a managing director in the consumer products practice at Alix Partners. “Millennials want this stuff; even kids talk about it. But it’s not one versus another demographic. While immunity supplements skew a bit towards higher income customers, they’re crossing all ethnicities and incomes."

New tastes, textures and formats
In 1997, Hero Nutritionals introduced gummy vitamins. Other suppliers followed, and tastes and formulations slowly improved. But it was not until five years ago that companies became serious about gummies, Konanahalli said. “And it’s only been over the past two that offerings have proliferated.” Prices are 10% to 15% higher than for tablets.

“Millennials want this stuff; even kids talk about it. But it’s not one versus another demographic. While immunity supplements skew a bit towards higher income customers, they’re crossing all ethnicities and incomes.”
— Raj Konanahalli, managing director in the consumer products practice at Alix Partners

With COVID-19 prompting more consumers to buy immunity defense supplements, alternative format sales skyrocketed. “They drove up an already rising trend of new delivery forms like gummies, drinks and powders,” Brous said.

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According to Mintel, chewable formats are now the leading way supplements are consumed by people aged 35 years old and younger.

At Piping Rock, Nature’s Truth vegan Sambucus Black Elderberry Gummies are a top seller, Vigliante said. In addition to soft gels, the company offers natural pineapple-flavored, vegetarian-friendly vitamin D3 gummies and natural grape-flavored extra-strength zinc gummies.

Newer formats appeal to adults who have difficulty swallowing tablets. They also are popular among those who take myriad supplements. “People get pill fatigue and shift to new forms,” said Chuck Tacl, senior vice president of sales and business development at Mason Vitamins. “It plays into people’s desire for convenience.” Among non-pill delivery formats, gummies lead the charge, he said.

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Mason Vitamins introduced gummies about five years ago, Tacl said. Offerings include: elderberry with echinacea and propolis, orange/strawberry-flavored sugar-free probiotics, and turmeric with ginger.

2020 CRN Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements

This fall, the brand is adding powder stick packs versions of its DigestGuard probiotic/prebiotic, Marine Collagen (with biotin, hyaluronic acid, turmeric and zinc) and Immunity Defense products (with electrolytes, elderberry, zinc and selenium). Powder sticks dissolve in water.

It is also introducing effervescent formulations of its Immunity Hydration Powder (with electrolytes, elderberry, ginger and zinc) and Marine Collagen (containing matcha green tea, turmeric and biotin).

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Gummies and other non-tablet formats have broadened the children’s market by making supplements tastier and more palatable. “The kids’ market is about compliance,” said Karyn McCarthy, vice president of sales and marketing at Childlife Essentials. “Kids want gummies and think they’re delicious. That’s our biggest segment. Ninety percent of our products are liquid. The amount of nutrition absorbed is higher."

In addition to COVID-19 concerns, millennial and Gen Z parents’ embracing of natural foods is driving their interest in immune supplements with natural ingredients. “They recognize you can heal the body through nutrition,” McCarthy said. “They want non-GMO, natural products that are sustainably sourced and allergen free.”

Childlife Essentials’ kids’ offerings include probiotics, vitamins C and D3, zinc, echinacea, and elderberry. Its soft melt, sugar-free gummies can be administered to newborns. It also offers drops, liquids and chewables.

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Mainstream companies also are targeting the children’s market. APAX’s new Fizzilicious is a fizzy drink tablet containing calcium-enhanced vitamins. Sweetened with stevia, it comes in fruit flavors. And ADM Protexin’s Bio-Kult probiotics brand has a sachet version for infants. 

Education is crucial
Following Dr. Anthony Fauci’s September 2020 announcement that vitamin D might help avoid negative COVID-19 scenarios, sales of the supplement soared. Momentum continues, attesting to the roles endorsement and education play in consumers’ decisions to purchase immune supplements. According to Brous, purchases are usually planned — they are not impulse buys.

[Millennial and Gen Z parents] … "want non-GMO, natural products that are sustainably sourced and allergen free.”
— Karyn McCarthy, vice president of sales and marketing, Childlife Essentials

Suppliers often reach consumers through celebrities and online influencers. In February, Olly partnered with actor and comedian Rebel Wilson, a staunch believer in healthy living, who serves as brand ambassador. Childlife works with pediatrician Dr. Katie Friedman, contributor to parental website Friedman and Childlife answer parents’ questions via live Instagram posts and other parental forums. McCarthy also is planning in-store events.

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“She strongly advocates supplements,” McCarthy said. “Millennials do much research online and via social media, reading blog posts from people they trust.”

Probulin engages winning Olympic athletes, who discuss products via online posts and videos. It also partners with retailers around promotional events like Immunity Month or Heart Health Month, “where they discuss various supplements,” said CEO Jason Mitchell. In stores, Probulin trains salespeople, phone and pharmacy personnel and retailers’ vitamin specialists. “The type [of] training depends on the particular retailer,” he said. “It can be a big investment.”

Probulin offers multi-strain probiotics for digestive health, immune support and women’s well-being.

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The immune supplements sector should continue growing at a higher rate than it did pre-pandemic because more shoppers have embraced it. Yet the current growth rate may not be sustainable. “The wellness trend was already there before COVID-19,” Konanahalli said. “Now, we’re seeing double-digit growth. Growth should continue, but will slow. It won’t become flat, but the category won’t be as hot as it’s been.