Food supplements proving recession-proof

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Food supplements proving recession-proof
The ongoing slide of global capitalism is decimating industries, but the food supplements industry is not one of them as fraught consumers turn to its potential low-cost, anti-medical, wellness promise.

The surge in food supplements sales is highlighting the fact nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals have not always been easy bedfellows. They have been made to share the same blanket at times, and this has blurred the basic premise that drugs are usually designed to treat​ diseases and cost more, while food supplements are cheaper and suited to disease prevention.

Wellness in harsh times

The economic grind has contributed to this particular blanket being thrown off, and food supplements are revealing themselves to be more than capable of surviving the economic chill.

In the US, market analyst, IRI, notes food supplement sales were up eight per cent in the period ended December, 2008, over the same time a year previous. Similar trends are being reported elsewhere from China to Europe, South Korea, South Africa and Australia.

US vitamin retailer, Vitamine Shoppe, notes 20 per cent of customers in the past six months are first-time food supplements buyers of the likes of omega-3s, multivitamins, herbal extracts, probiotics, glucosamine and chondroitin.

US natural foods merchandiser, Whole Foods, reported its first-ever ​negative quarter recently, but noted food supplements were the star performer in its nationwide chain of stores.


With fewer shekels in the coffers of household budgets around the world, food supplements are increasing in appeal as fear-ridden consumers look for ways and means to dodge the potential budget-busting hell of the mainstream medical system.

Doctors in white coats; hastily scribbled prescription notes; drug store visits for high-powered and high-cost drugs; hospital stays; clinic visits…no thanks.

As Uwe E. Reinhardt, a professor of economics at Princeton university in the US, told The New York Times​ last week: “When you go to the formal health system, you very quickly lose control over what this costs you.”

Perhaps there is a little justice in all this. Food supplements have after all been victim of enough kickings over the years from the likes of badly designed trials that have asked of them what they are not capable of delivering – namely, the treatment of diseases.

The resulting damage to the industry has been vast so to find droves of new consumers turning to them is heartening and validating.

It backs up what many industry experts have been saying since this recession really kicked in last year – that food supplements offer a health solution that becomes more compelling in hard economic times.

Star performer

Yet strangely, the buoyancy in food supplements has not transferred across all sectors. Growth in organic and healthy food sales has slowed.

Perhaps the premiums typically attached to these foods are now proving too high and those that are more economically challenged are buying more staple items that provide calories to feed hungry bellies and worrying less about where those calories come from and the form in which they are presented.

And food supplements are increasingly seen, not as premium dietary items, but as a discount ​means to beat the medical system. For families and individuals to be healthier and happier.​The clue is written into their very name – to supplement​ the diet.

Backwards, and forwards

In the same New York Times​ story last week, a recently sacked hairdresser and beautician outlined why she was heading to the supplement aisles even though she had fewer nickels in her purse than ever.

“I don’t have health insurance, so I can’t go and see a doctor because it’s very expensive,”​ said 40-year-old Jacqueline Kreiss. “The economy just really put me backward, so I started relying on the vitamins.”

Says it all really. Shame it has taken an economic catastrophe to make people like Jacqueline see the sense the supplements industry has been communicating for decades.

Shane Starling is the editor of, takes food supplements and rarely goes to the doctor. If you would like to comment on this article email shane.starling'at'

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