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Retailers are challenged to keep up with the science, research and media reports related to vitamins

Consumers are gravitating back to the alphabet vitamins. Letter vitamins have resurged over the last several years to post double-digit sales gains.

While sales of the entire vitamin category are holding up well in a difficult economic environment, one- and two-letter vitamins have shown impressive growth, up 10.5% in dollars on volume of $579.6 million in mass-market channels. Supermarket sales rose 11% and drug store sales climbed 10% in dollars for the 52-week period ending Oct. 30, 2011, according to the latest figures from Chicago-based SymphonyIRI Group, which does not count Wal-Mart Stores, one of the largest sellers of dietary supplements, club stores or gas/convenience stores in its sales figures.

This is a comeback from what the nutritional industry refers to as the vitamin E effect — a negative report released in 2004 by the Annals of Internal Medicine indicating that people taking high doses of vitamin E, 400 IU or more daily, were about 10% more likely to die than those who do not.

The result of that report caused vitamin E sales to plummet 43% for the 2005 calendar year, according to SymphonyIRI data, and this letter vitamin has struggled to come back ever since.

Recent research on vitamin E has done little to spur sales. A National Institutes of Health study published this fall in the Journal of the American Medical

Association established a link between vitamin E and prostate cancer, which is likely to curtail usage among men.

Fallout from the AIM report also suppressed sales of vitamins A and D, which dropped 6%, and C, which fell 5%. Historically, the fortunes of vitamin purveyors have risen and fallen on such negative as well as positive studies.

“Watching the market expand and contract as popularity either waxes or wanes is something we are used to in this industry,” said Abraham Nabors, who oversees the vitamin category at Mustard Seed Market & Café, Solon, Ohio.

In response to current negative publicity over multivitamins, Joe Fortunato, chief executive of GNC, told analysts during a third-quarter conference call, “We've been going through this for years. The media just isn't a big supporter of the dietary supplement industry — it likes sensationalism.”

Lately the news has been more positive, especially when it comes to vitamin D, one of the fastest-growing supplements in the dietary supplement category. Best known as a bone health nutrient, recent research indicates taking vitamin D supplements can affect many biological factors such as immunity, inflammation, heart and blood pressure or disorders such as depression or diseases such as diabetes or certain types of cancer.

Vitamin D usage rose 56.2% last year, up from 47.9% in 2009 and 36.9% in 2008, a 52% increase over a two-year period, according to an annual survey of 6,000 respondents.

Sales of vitamin D climbed to $550 million last year, a 30% increase over the prior year, according to a report in Nutrition Business Journal.

Pharmavite, Northridge, Calif., makers of Nature Made, which it claims is the No. 1 pharmacist-recommended brand for letter vitamins, reports its share of the market up 12.6% to 32.7% share.

“Within the letter vitamin category, vitamin D trends have the strongest year-to-date trends, up 16.6% as consumers are becoming increasingly aware of vitamin D deficiency. Not far behind D is the vitamin B trend, up 12.2%, which is driven by consumers seeking energy support benefits,” said a Pharmavite spokesperson.

The vitamin maker says an aging population combined with consumers taking a more proactive position on managing their health should continue to fuel such trends in the foreseeable future.

In 2010 the Institute of Medicine reviewed and updated its recommendation for Dietary Reference Intakes for vitamin D as well as calcium. While the IOM recommended tripling intake levels for those age 50 and under to 600 IU per day, many vitamin D advocates believe the government's recommendations are too low.

“While an increase in the recommendation for vitamin D will benefit the public overall, such a conservative increase for the nutrient lags behind the mountain of research demonstrating a need for vitamin D intake at levels possibly as high as 2,000 IU/day for adults,” Andrew Shao, senior vice president, scientific and regulatory affairs, Council for Responsible Nutrition, told NBJ at the time IOM released its new recommendations.

Dr. Oz, the cardiovascular surgeon and popular talk show celebrity, has done much to promote use of vitamins such as D, retailers say. “Dr. Oz drives our business a lot right now,” said Jo Ann Baker, natural living director, Sunflower Farmers Market, Phoenix, Ariz. While Oz recommends 1,000 IU per day of D, Baker said naturopaths in her market are recommending 10,000 IU a day of D for someone who is very deficient. Shoppers do come into Sunflower asking for 10,000 IU per day tablets, Baker said.

Manufacturers have boosted their formulas to meet demand for higher intakes. “We had to scramble to get in stronger formulas to meet up with the demand,” said Joe Deschaine, a clerk at Wildberries Marketplace, Arcata, Calif.

SPINS, the natural product research and consulting organization, listed vitamin D as a trend to watch in 2011. “Look for vitamin D supplement combination formulas and new functional food and beverage products that highlight added vitamin D,” the researcher said.

Serving a very health-conscious customer base in Arcata, Calif., Deschaine said more of Wildberries' customers are leaning toward whole foods complex formulas like those supplied by New Chapter. “Arcata is a very health-conscious community and it is on top of ingredients that may be genetically modified,” he said. A first question from customers often is where is the vitamin sourced? Most synthetic vitamins like E and C can come from GMO ingredients like soybeans from which E is derived or from corn for C, said Deschaine.

Vitamin K is showing positive movement. K2 is being added to calcium formulas for better absorption, said retailers.

Other single-letter vitamins either remain flat or represent small volume.

Vitamin C is flat. Baker noted the seasonality of such vitamins. “Part of the surge right now is going into the season for cold and flu so vitamin C sales are up,” she said.

“Ever since we had the swine flu rush, when cough and cold season comes along people stock up. They are much more conscious now because it affects their pocketbooks in the long run if they get sick,” said Baker.

While E sales have been on the decline at Sunflower, Baker said customers still ask for it. Whether it can make a comeback depends on the science and doctors' endorsement, she noted.

“We have vitamin E on our shelves for 30 years and it's not going anywhere. There are many wonderful benefits to vitamin E and, I believe, it has to do with the appropriate dosage,” said Nabors.

Amid all the science, research and media reports on the vitamin category, retailers are challenged to stay on top of the news and get the right information to shoppers.

Suppliers like Pharmavite routinely provide retailers with segment-level growth trends along with customer-specific solutions so retailers can best leverage positive trends.

Nabors said, while “consumers' personal choice is incredibly strong,” he values and recommends a consultation with a doctor before starting any supplement regimen to make sure it's being done safely and effectively.

Nabors keeps up on dietary supplements news by subscribing to email lists that sort through a vast body of information.

Sunflower invests in an educated staff, said Baker. A three-day seminar for product managers to train with credentialed experts in the field will be held next week.

“We want our staff to know what they are talking about. Then we'll do a series of consumer educational events and a health fair in every store twice a year,” said Baker.

Wildberries Marketplace provides in-aisle informational pamphlets and has the Prescription of Nutritional Healing book available for customers to reference. Deschaine stays on top of the category through, research information provided by New Chapter.

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