A powerful response to the pandemic25 May 2021
Improving health through diet is nothing new – adding botanical nutraceuticals into the mix is a more recent trend. Jim Banks discusses the booming market for botanical nutraceuticals and the effects of the pandemic with Esther Mills-Robert of the Health Food Manufacturers Association.
For decades, a growing cohort of consumers has been taking more responsibility for their personal health, recognising that diet and exercise have an enormous impact on their ability to live well. More than one year into the global health crisis caused by coronavirus, that trend has gathered more momentum.
As consumers around the world come to better understand nutrition, they are not only improving the basic components of their diet, but also supplementing them with foods that provide specific health benefits beyond their nutritional value. The healing benefits of plants, many of which have been known for thousands of years, are under the microscope of scientific research – and the global market for botanical nutraceuticals is booming as a result.
Simply put, nutraceuticals are plants and herbs that are rich in specific nutrients that help the human body to reach optimum mental and physical performance. Research by the Health Food Manufacturers Association (HFMA), into the habits of the UK population since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, shows that coronavirus has caused an uptick in interest in food supplements. The HFMA survey examining the health impact of Covid-19 in the UK, entitled ‘The Health of the Nation 2021: Lockdown Focus’, built on previous research, that showed a majority of adults are taking food supplements – almost half of them on a daily basis.
“The new survey showed that there have been changes in consumer drivers of supplement purchases,” says Esther Mills-Robert, nutritional biochemist and communication manager at the HFMA. “We know that fewer people rely on information from family and friends, and more people are now searching for themselves online. Widespread coverage of the role of vitamin D in immune health has increased consumer awareness of the value of natural health products in maintaining health.”
All eyes on the immune system
Vitamin D deficiency is one of many factors implicated in severe Covid-19 disease, and the only one that can be modified. While there is some concern in the medical community about the extent to which it can treat the condition, there is a more widespread awareness of what vitamin D does and, consequently, the potential benefits of other supplements.
“Vitamin D research trials have been covered in the press, giving consumers confidence that this nutrient is of great interest within the scientific community,” adds Mills-Robert. “Thus, confidence in supplements is high, with 30% considering supplements to be an investment in good health, compared to 22% for gyms and 19% for organic food. In fact, from our research, nearly a third have started taking supplements in the last year, in particular vitamin D and vitamin C.”
Covid may be the driving force for many newcomers towards supplements and nutraceuticals – but once that door is open there are compelling reasons to further explore nature’s medicine cabinet. Indeed, within five years the global market is expected to reach $64.3bn.
“For many years, people have taken supplements to help redress imbalances in diet, and our survey showed that more than a third feel they do not get the right amount of vitamins and minerals through their daily diet,” Mills-Robert explains. “More specifically, 60.7% are taking food supplements for general health and well-being, 24% for vitamin deficiency, 21% for joint health and over 20% to optimise their overall health.”
The most popular supplements are vitamins and minerals, along with fish oils and omega-3s, but across the world there are dozens of botanical nutraceuticals that are rapidly growing in popularity.
Echinacea is a prime example. Frequently used to fight infections including UTIs and herpes, it is also used for skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis, as well as for the prevention of the common cold. Green tea supplements are becoming more popular for their powerful antioxidant properties, raspberry ketones for burning fat – garcinia cambogia for promoting weight loss is a hot commodity in the health and fitness industry, and a host of adaptogens, not least panax ginseng.
“Confidence in supplements is high, with 30% considering supplements to be an investment in good health, compared to 22% for gyms and 19% for organic food.”
The expected reach of the global herbal nutraceuticals market by 2026.
Ginseng has been used for thousands of years for its reported ability to increase energy, boost stamina and improve cognitive performance. Although only limited scientific research has been done to quantify its effects, some mechanistic studies have suggested that it can modulate the body’s immune response. One thing is clear – there is growing interest in ginseng as a nutraceutical with a steadily growing market value.
Similarly to ginseng, any nutraceutical with reported benefits for the immune system has been drawn into the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic. During Covid, however, the main focus of consumers seems to have been on supporting the body’s immune response.
“There has certainly been an increased purchase of supplements within the population, most notably of immune health products, and specific nutrients with authorised health claims for support of immune function,” says Mills-Robert.
The percentage of respondents who categorise their state of health as ‘very’ or ‘quite’ healthy, compared with 66.8% in the 2016 survey.
The percentage of adults planning to take more food supplements as they get older.
The percentage of the 25–34 age group who are planning to increase their consumption of food supplements.
Beyond that, nutraceuticals can also play a key role in addressing the secondary effects of Covid-19, notably the stress, anxiety and mental fatigue that go hand-in-hand with restrictions on movement, social distancing and lockdown. Rhodiola rosea, also known as arctic root or golden root, is just one example of a botanical supplement believed to provide relief from stress and fatigue, as well as treating symptoms of depression and improving brain function. Similarly, ashwaghanda, also known as withania somnifera or Indian ginseng, is said to reduce levels of stress hormone cortisol, boost testosterone, reduce inflammation and supposedly improve memory.
Under the microscope
The rising tide of interest in nutraceuticals is changing perceptions among consumers about how specific nutrients can benefit the human body and how they, as individuals, can define their own roadmap to a healthier life.
“As demonstrated by the number who see supplements as a good investment in health, confidence in supplementation is high,” notes Mills- Robert. “There is always the need to educate the public about what they are and what they do, especially when lockdown data is showing that more consumers are self-researching online for the information that they need. This makes it all the more pressing to make sure that consumers are engaging with information about supplements that is reliable and credible.”
With the wealth of information available online it can be hard to decide which sources to trust and which to treat with a healthy dose of scepticism. That decision, however, is steadily becoming easier, as in-depth scientific research gathers pace.
A snapshot of ongoing research projects shows that many different plants and their potential application to many conditions are currently under examination. One recently published report by researchers at Murray State University in the US, for example, examined the benefits of nutraceuticals for arthritis, a condition that affects more than 46 million Americans, to investigate the beneficial, and adverse, effects of nutraceuticals.
Similar research is under way to examine how different nutraceuticals can aid the prevention of cancer, improve brain health, and treat skin disorders, cardiovascular disease and renal disease, as well as reduce anxiety and stress.
As the body of scientific evidence grows, it will become easier for self-educating consumers to find the right supplements to meet their specific needs, providing that the plant-based nutraceuticals they seek are not only available in their domestic markets, but also meet the right quality standards.
Quality over quantity
In the global nutraceuticals market, product quality can vary greatly, and there is no consistent regulatory standard, particularly for new or exotic ingredients about which health claims are made. As well as researching the benefits and looking at credible scientific studies, consumers also need to look closely at the suppliers and the regulatory standards under which they operate to avoid buying supplements with low-quality or ineffective ingredients.
In terms of regulation, nutraceuticals are treated differently in different jurisdictions. In the US, for example, the terms ‘nutraceutical’ and ‘bioceutical’ are not defined by law. Depending on the health claims made for a particular ingredient, a product could be regulated as a drug, a food ingredient or a dietary supplement.
In Europe, nutraceuticals require authorisation under the Novel Food Regulation and in the UK, which is no longer an EU member state, legislation is currently aligned with the EU but will no doubt follow its own course in the years ahead.
“There are certain areas where the regulatory framework can more logically recognise the function and nomenclature of certain health supplements, such as probiotics – especially in the UK post-Brexit,” believes Mills-Robert. “This is something that the HFMA is actively engaged with, advocating for our members at an influential level.”
It takes time for science to explore the claims made for nutraceuticals and other food supplements, and even longer for regulation to catch up with the science, but there is plenty of motivation for both scientists and regulators to be heavily focused on this market. After all, the will of consumers is strong and their focus on personal health in the current climate can only be a good thing.