FWD 2 HerbalGram: Sales of Herbal Dietary Supplements in US Increased 7.5% in 2015 Consumers spent $6.92 billion on herbal supplements in 2015, marking the 12th consecutive year of growth

Issue: 111 Page: 67-73

Sales of Herbal Dietary Supplements in US Increased 7.5% in 2015 Consumers spent $6.92 billion on herbal supplements in 2015, marking the 12th consecutive year of growth

by Tyler Smitha, Kimberly Kawab, Veronica Ecklb, James Johnsonc

HerbalGram. 2016; American Botanical Council

aHerbalGram, American Botanical Council; Austin, Texas

bSPINS; Chicago, Illinois

cNutrition Business Journal, New Hope Natural Media; Boulder, Colorado


Consumer spending on herbal dietary supplements in the United States reached an all-time high in 2015. Retail sales of herbal supplements totaled an estimated $6.92 billion in 2015 (Table 1), a 7.5% increase in sales from the previous year. Consumers spent approximately $480 million more on herbal products in 2015 than in the previous year — an increase that marks the 12th consecutive year of growth for these products.

These figures, and the rest of the data* presented in HerbalGram’s 2015 Herb Market Report, were generously provided by the following organizations: SPINS LLC, a market research firm based in Chicago, which collaborated with IRI (Information Resources Inc.), also a Chicago-based market research company, to determine mainstream multi-outlet retail sales of herbal dietary supplements, and the Nutrition Business Journal (NBJ), a publication of New Hope Natural Media, a specialty media company with headquarters in Colorado.

For the seventh year in a row, sales of herbal supplements increased in each of the three market channels — mass-market (“mainstream channel”), natural and health food (“natural channel”), and direct sales (Tables 2 and 3). Although the natural channel generally outperforms the other two channels in terms of percent growth, in 2015, the mainstream channel experienced the highest sales increase of 7.9%. Sales growth was slightly less for the natural (7.7%) and direct sales channels (7.2%).

Mainstream Retail Channel

Sales of herbal dietary supplements in the mainstream channel totaled $943 million in 2015, as determined by SPINS and IRI. This figure represents a 1.5% increase over 2014 sales in this channel of approximately $929 million. NBJ — which includes convenience store data in its mass-market channel — estimated higher total mainstream sales of $1.2 billion.

Horehound, for the third year in a row, was the top-selling herbal supplement in the US mainstream multi-outlet channel. Sales of horehound supplements in 2015 reached almost $115 million (see Table 4), an 8.5% increase from the previous year. Since 2013, horehound supplement sales, which include lozenges with horehound as the primary ingredient, have increased by a total of almost $8 million in mainstream outlets, indicating strong, continued growth for this member of the mint (Lamiaceae) family.1

The first documented medicinal use of horehound was in the 1st century CE, when Roman physician A. Cornelius Celsus noted that horehound juice could relieve respiratory issues.2 Almost two millennia later, 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper recommended a horehound syrup preparation “as an excellent help to evacuate tough phlegm and cold rheum from the lungs of aged persons.”3 Horehound has also been used to relieve digestive and other issues, but, today, horehound supplements are still used primarily to support respiratory health.4 Consumers are perhaps more familiar with horehound in the form of cough drops or lozenges. In recent years, the herb has been revived as an ingredient of cocktails, particularly the “Rock and Rye,” a classic American whiskey cocktail popular in the 1930s.5

Boswellia, commonly known as Indian frankincense, also had a remarkable year in 2015. Although it ranked 39th on the list of top-selling herbal supplements in the mainstream channel, the herb experienced a 673.6% increase in sales from the previous year. Native to parts of India, the Middle East, and northern Africa, the boswellia tree contains an oily gum resin that can be extracted from the trunk and made into a highly prized incense. For thousands of years, the resin has also been used for its anti-inflammatory properties in the traditional Indian medical system of Ayurveda (see “Natural Channel” section for more about Ayurveda).6 Today, boswellia supplements are marketed primarily for their anti-inflammatory properties.7 In clinical trials, various boswellia preparations have shown promising effects in subjects with osteoarthritis,8 asthma,9 and colitis10 (an inflammatory condition of the colon).

An article from the November 30, 2015, issue of The New Yorker described inflammation as the year’s latest medical “craze,” noting a significant increase in coverage by both popular news media and scientific publications. “This explosion in activity has captured the public imagination,” the article noted.11 “In best-selling books and on television and radio talk shows, threads of research are woven into cure-all tales in which inflammation is responsible for nearly every malady, and its defeat is the secret to health and longevity.”

Boswellia was just one of the herbal ingredients that benefitted from this “cure-all craze” in 2015. Many boswellia supplements promoted for their anti-inflammatory actions also are formulated with turmeric. In 2015, turmeric had the fourth highest percentage increase in sales (+117.7%) of the mainstream channel’s 40 top-selling herbal supplements. This yellow-orange spice contains curcumin, which, among many other properties, is an antioxidant, and which is thought to be responsible, in part, for turmeric's anti-inflammatory properties. Turmeric and/or curcumin preparations have been studied for their ability to relieve a number of inflammation-related conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and various neurodegenerative disorders.12

Other herbal ingredients in the mainstream channel with greater than 100% increases in sales in 2015 include ivy leaf (+129.4%), beta glucans (+127.4%), and fenugreek (+106.2%).

Total sales of ivy leaf supplements in 2015, particularly as children’s syrups, were more than double the amount from the previous year. The German Commission E approved ivy leaf for the treatment of respiratory inflammation, and the herb has been a popular component of cough-relieving formulas in Europe for years.1

In previous years, HerbalGram has chosen not to include beta glucans, but it was added back into the data set for 2015 to reflect the American Botanical Council’s (ABC's) increased coverage of beneficial fungi and their constituents. Beta glucans are a class of biologically active compounds that are typically derived from mushrooms, yeasts, barley, oats, etc. Beta glucans have been studied for their immune-enhancing and anti-inflammatory properties, among others.13,14 In the top-40 list of the mainstream channel’s bestselling ingredients, several other herbs known for their immune-enhancing effects also saw increases, notably elderberry (+27.3%) and echinacea (+7.4%).

Fenugreek supplements were the fifth product in the mainstream channel that saw a more-than-100% increase in sales from 2014. The seeds and leaves of the sprouts are often used in Indian and other cuisines.15 Fenugreek has been used traditionally to increase breast milk production, for sexual health, to relieve digestive symptoms, and, more recently, for blood sugar control in patients with type 2 diabetes.16 In 2015, the results of several human studies of fenugreek were published, including one that found that a fenugreek seed extract could increase “sexual arousal and desire” in healthy women,17 and another that suggested an enriched fenugreek seed extract could “enhance testosterone levels and sperm profiles” in men.18

Mainstream sales of many well-known herbal supplements, such as the seven originally targeted in the New York attorney general’s investigation that began in February 2015, remained fairly stable in 2015. There was a less-than-15% change from 2014 sales for each of the following of these herbs: echinacea (+7.4%), garlic (+8.4%), ginseng (-10.7%), ginkgo (+14.8%), St. John’s wort (+8.4%), saw palmetto (-6.4%), and valerian (4.0%).

Green coffee extract experienced the greatest percentage decrease in mainstream sales from 2014, with a 40.7% drop in 2015. Although it ranked 11th in overall sales, green coffee extract was one of numerous weight-loss supplements that experienced reduced sales in 2015. In the mainstream channel, consumers purchased fewer green tea (-23.4%) and garcinia (-23.3%) supplements in 2015 than they did in 2014. Notably, beginning in 2012, each of these three products has been promoted by Mehmet Oz, MD, on his daytime talk show “The Dr. Oz Show.”19 In a widely publicized hearing of the US Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance in June 2014, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) criticized the evidence supporting these popular weight-loss products. Since that time, the “Dr. Oz Effect” that once boosted sales of these herbs has diminished significantly. Still, garcinia and green tea ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, in terms of overall 2015 sales in the mainstream channel.

Other herbal ingredients in the mainstream channel that saw significant percentage sales decreases in 2015 include isoflavones (-27.6%), rhodiola (-25.3%), and acai (-24.6%). Sales of rhodiola, an herb with clinically supported cognitive health benefits,20 may have been impacted by another Senate hearing led by McCaskill. In July 2015, she chaired a subcommittee hearing on dietary supplement products that claim “to provide protection against Alzheimer’s, dementia, stroke, memory loss and cognitive decline.”21 Although rhodiola supplements were not implicated in the hearing,22 their decline in sales may reflect consumers distancing themselves from this product category in the second half of 2015, although this potential association is difficult to establish with any certainty.

In addition, researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign published mixed findings in April 2015 related to soy (Glycine max, Fabaceae) consumption and cancer.23 Their negative findings surrounding purified isoflavones may partially explain the drop in sales for this ingredient, which is typically derived from soy.

Finally, acai’s diminished sales in 2015 — its third consecutive year of reduced sales — may, in part, be due to the proliferation of new “superfoods” rising to take its place.24

Sales figures for the categories “Chinese herbs” and “whole food concentrate” were not included in HerbalGram’s top-40 mainstream channel rankings due to their relative broadness. Had they remained on the list, Chinese herbs would have been the second top-selling supplement (with a 10% decline in sales from 2014) and whole food concentrate would have ranked 43rd in this channel (with an 11% sales decline from 2014). Individual formulations not primarily derived from botanicals — such as biotin (a B vitamin found in some plants) and blue-green algae (a type of cyanobacteria) — also were excluded. As the only branded supplement on the list, Relora (InterHealth Nutraceuticals Inc.; Benicia, California), a proprietary blend of magnolia (Magnolia officinalis, Magnoliaceae) and phellodendron (Phellodendron amurense, Rutaceae) bark extracts, was removed as well.

Natural Channel

The natural channel saw a 4% increase in sales in 2015, with a total of $365 million spent on herbal supplements (Table 5), according to SPINS. This increase is slightly smaller than 2014’s 5.2% increase1 and 2013’s significant 9.9% increase in sales.25 Sales in the natural channel tend to come from what marketers call “core shoppers,” who are committed to a more natural lifestyle, including natural-health modalities. So-called “peripheral shoppers,” who have less of a personal commitment to a natural-health philosophy, are more likely to purchase dietary supplements in the mainstream channel.

For the third year in a row, turmeric was the top-selling herbal dietary supplement in the natural channel in 2015, with total sales of $37,334,821. It also had the second-highest percentage sales growth (+32.2%) over the previous year’s sales.

Ashwagandha experienced the highest percentage growth in the natural channel; sales of this traditional Indian herb in 2015 were 40.9% higher than they were in 2014. Ashwagandha has been used in the Ayurvedic system of medicine for thousands of years for a variety of purposes: to reduce stress, combat fatigue, strengthen the immune system, reduce inflammation, and boost cognition, among many others.26 Ashwagandha sales likely benefitted from a number of positive studies published at the end of 2014 and during 2015 that supported some of these traditional uses. Published in December 2014, a systematic review and meta-analysis of five randomized clinical trials of ashwagandha for anxiety concluded that subjects taking the herb had “greater score improvements (significantly in most cases) than placebo in outcomes on anxiety or stress scales.”27 In addition, an eight-week randomized controlled trial published in December 2015 found that an ashwagandha root extract increased strength and muscle mass in 57 males undergoing resistance training.28 In vivo and in vitro studies published in 2015 suggested ashwagandha’s potential use in conditions ranging from Alzheimer’s disease29 to cancer.30

The popularity of turmeric and ashwagandha in the natural channel — as well as boswellia’s 674% sales increase in the mainstream channel — reflects a broader trend in herbal dietary supplements in 2015: increased consumer familiarity with and acceptance of Ayurvedic herbs. These herbal ingredients, which have been used for millennia in India, have been formulated in a range of products, from herbal supplements to cosmetics.

Garcinia and chia seed/oil had the only two significant percentage sales drops in the natural channel in 2015. Garcinia sales in 2015 were 47.9% less than sales in 2014. Chia sales during the same period dropped 33.0%. This was the second consecutive year with reduced sales for chia; in 2014, chia sales had declined 1.2% from 2013 sales. Like acai in the mainstream channel, chia sales may have declined, in part, due to an oversaturation of newly-hyped superfoods (e.g., hemp, kelp, and matcha powder).31 Furthermore, in January 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked a salmonella outbreak that sickened 31 people in the US to organic chia seed powder;32 chia was again linked to a salmonella outbreak, this time in Canada, in December 2015.33 Both incidences may have impacted sales. In addition, one small human study published in May 2015 found that chia seed oil had no positive impact on distance runners,34 but an association of this study with chia sales declines cannot be made.

Direct Sales Channel

In 2015, direct sales of herbal supplements in the US increased by 7.2% to a total of more than $3.36 billion, according to NBJ. Growth in this channel was slightly more pronounced than the 6.4% sales increase in 2014 from the year before. Direct channel sales of herbal dietary supplements include multi-level marketing companies (also known as network marketing companies). This channel also encompasses mail and internet order sales companies, direct response TV and radio sales, and sales by health practitioners.

Single vs. Combination Herb Supplements

Overall, total sales of single-herb supplements (monopreparations) were higher than those of combination herb supplements in 2015, but combination products outpaced single-herb products in terms of sales growth, according to NBJ (see Table 6). Combination supplement sales in all channels grew 10.7% compared to the previous year, and sales of monopreparations increased by 5.5% from 2014. Combination herbal supplements have outpaced single-herb supplements in terms of percentage sales growth since 2011.

Combination formulas generally use a blend of herbs that are marketed for a specific benefit, including maintaining healthy blood sugar and/or blood lipid levels, and easing the effects of menopause, among many others. Herbal blends, such as those used in traditional Chinese medicine, have a long history of traditional use, and modern research continues to explore their efficacy.


In a period of just three years, from 2012 to 2015, total annual retail sales of herbal supplements increased by more than $1.3 billion. Despite frequent negative media coverage of herbal dietary supplements in 2015, including coverage of the New York attorney general’s investigation,35 the crackdown on illegal drugs masquerading as “dietary supplements” by federal agencies in November, and some publications associating some products with potential adverse health effects36 — total sales of the entire herbal dietary supplement category remained strong. In fact, 2015’s 7.5% increase in overall sales represents the second highest percentage growth for these products in more than a decade.


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