Some better pills to swallow

As the UK population ages and becomes more health-conscious, sales of vitamins and dietary supplements are following a long-term upward trend

As a nation, Britain is becoming more preoccupied with health. With increasingly busy lifestyles, however, people are willing to spend less time and effort on preparing fresh nutritional meals. As average lifespans increase, vitamins and supplements are viewed as one way to ward off the frailty that comes with old age. A new Key Note study says that consumers are being persuaded, thanks to well-targeted advertising and increased media coverage, of the efficacy of such products.

Last year, Britons spent £338m on vitamins, minerals and supplements. Taken at face value, this figure reflects a disappointing decline of 7.1 per cent after two years of steady growth – sales grew by 5.5 per cent in 2000 and 3.4 per cent in 1999. But the figures mask some significant developments in the market.

Last year’s abolition of retail price maintenance – which gave manufacturers the right to set minimum prices for over-the-counter products – helped to expand the market for own-label brands but contributed to lower prices in the sector overall. Furthermore, sales of fish oils – seen as old-fashioned – have continued to decline.

There are two major success stories in the vitamins and supplements market. Multivitamins, which now make up over 28 per cent of sales, are virtually the only sector to have shown value growth last year. Multivitamins for children are also becoming an increasingly significant sector. The second boom sector is “other” products, which include herbal products such as Ginseng and St John’s Wort along with “energy” supplements. This sector now makes up 22 per cent of the market – the second-highest share. Over the past five years, the sector has seen a high rate of product development, which has helped it to eat into sales of more traditional products such as fish oils, evening primrose oils and single vitamins.

In terms of vitamin and supplement usage, there is a clear bias towards women and the middle-aged. Almost a quarter (24 per cent) of women say that they use vitamins on a regular basis, compared with only 17 per cent of men. Among 45to 54-year-olds, the figure rises to 26 per cent of all consumers, although a younger profile is perhaps starting to emerge – 21 per cent of 15to 24-year-olds use vitamins regularly. Supplement consumption also appears to be linked with affluence. People in the AB socio-economic group are far more likely (27 per cent) than other groups to use vitamins regularly.

Among the population as a whole, just over 20 per cent of people say they take vitamin and mineral supplements regularly, which is virtually the same response as in 1999. However, since the 1999 survey, occasional usage has fallen from 16 per cent to 12 per cent.

Just under 30 per cent of those surveyed claim to use vitamins and supplements to improve their general health. Again, there is a bias towards women, with 33 per cent using vitamins for this reason, compared with fewer than one in four men (24 per cent). Respondents aged between 45 and 57 are most likely to use vitamins to improve their health – 36 per cent of them do so. Perhaps unsurprisingly, far more women (14 per cent) than men (four per cent) use vitamins and supplements for cosmetic reasons. Only seven per cent of people admit to using vitamins and supplements to slow ageing.

Key Note sees the market for vitamins and supplements aimed at children as a major growth area. In 2001 the children’s multivitamin market was worth £19.6m, up from £17.5m in 2000. This growth was fuelled by developments such as Jelly Babies with added vitamins.

Another growth area is supplements aimed at menopausal women. About 40 million women in the UK will experience the menopause over the next 20 years, suggesting that there will be sustained and strong demand for products designed to alleviate problems associated with the transition. In particular, the menopause increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, the major cause of death in women over 45. Supplements that have proven efficacy in this area will find a large market awaiting them as the population ages.

The sale of weight-control products is another area likely to see a high rate of product development. Previous Key Note studies have shown that the UK population is becoming increasingly obese. This is likely to lead to greater sales of weight-control products, and may also generate growth in the overall vitamins, minerals and supplements market.

The success of the market comes in the face of claims from many experts that, for most of the population, a well-balanced diet is all that is necessary to guarantee sufficient vitamin and mineral intake. There are also well-founded concerns that an excessive intake of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) can be toxic. Manufacturers will need to be careful about the claims they make and keep within the guidelines laid down by the Government.

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