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Today's Proactive Consumer and Herbal Supplements.
To truly understand the dynamic growth in herbal supplement use that has taken place over the past several years, it is important to understand the broader context of how consumer attitudes toward the relationship between health and diet have been evolving and the sea changes that have been taking place in these attitudes during the 90s. Our Gallup studies have been monitoring American nutritional attitudes and food habits since the 1970s.

The late 1970s and early 1980s were dominated by avoidance behavior -- what food should we try not to eat -- and much of this early "avoidance behavior" was focused on preservative ingredients in processed food that were potentially carcinogenic. In our first Gallup Study of "Changing Food Preparation and Eating Habits," conducted in 1977, the ingredient meal preparers most frequently mentioned as a concern was red dye No. 2. Today few consumers think about red dye No. 2 or any other additive. Concern soon moved on to other ingredients such as salt, sugar, and cholesterol, triggering the food industry's development of low salt, sugar-free, and cholesterol-free products. It was during this time that the vitamin and mineral supplement industry experienced significant growth.

Changes in American attitudes and behavior have historically taken place through what can best be described as a process of "leap and learn," and this certainly applies to evolving nutritional attitudes and habits. Consumers became increasingly aware of the relationship between diet and health in relation to heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, etc., and at least in concept if not in practice, embraced "food ingredient avoidance" as the way to improve health. Since the leap, fats have become the focus of avoidance and remain so today, although there are signs of change. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw consumers becoming much more knowledgeable about nutrition and the relationship between diet and health. The food pyramid and the concept of a balanced diet have been particularly important in this transition.

The food pyramid has become a well-known symbol of balanced eating. In our 1993 Gallup Changing Food Preparation & Eating Habits study, about one-fourth were aware of the pyramid, doubling to one in two (51 percent) in the 1996 study, and it is a good example of a more nutritionally knowledgeable consumer.

A more nutritionally savvy consumer, aging baby boomers coming to grips with their own mortality, and publicity about the potential of antioxidant vitamins to possibly prevent cancer, heart disease, and slow aging, have been the catalysts for the next evolutionary leap -- a shift in focus from "What foods can do to me to what foods can do for me." (Fig. 1)

With this shift has also come "new expectations" of what food and nutrition can do for consumers, ranging from more energy and stress relief to eliminating the symptoms of menopause and help with arthritis. And just like other leaps in attitudinal change, we are in the early phases of learning. Vitamins, particularly antioxidant vitamins and herbal supplements, have been the focus of today's "proactive consumer." It is important to understand that we are in the early stages of learning and that Americans are likely to take action now and sort out the details later. This is undoubtedly the case driving the recent surge in herbal supplement use. For the herbal supplement industry, the devil is likely to be in the sorting out of the details and I am afraid that herbal supplement marketers are not off to a good start. Our 1996 study of herbal supplement users found that most of the growth in herbal supplement use was coming from "first time tryers" and compared to the more traditional users, they were - more likely to have purchased their supplements in a supermarket or drug store vs. a health food store; - more likely to be light users of herbal supplements and less likely to also be taking vitamins; - Ginseng is the most popular supplement among new users. Perhaps more importantly: they are less likely to be knowledgeable about herbs than long-term users and they are concerned about the effectiveness and safety of the supplements they are trying. Recent publicity and product advertising has been successful in attracting new users and expanding the market, but can supplements live up to expectations? Our annual Gallup studies of the vitamin and herbal supplement markets have shown growing consumer interest in both vitamins and herbal supplements, with vitamins showing steady growth in usage during the 90s, while the growth in herbal supplement usage has been more dramatic, particularly over the past year or so. Presently, about one adult in five is using an herbal supplement -- about half the proportion of adults that are currently taking vitamins. Among herbal supplement users, about two thirds (54 percent) are also taking vitamins and mineral supplements. (Fig. 2) Vitamins and mineral supplements have traditionally been viewed as helpful for long-term health benefits and general overall nutritional benefits. As discussed, today's more proactive consumer has greater expectations for food and supplements and is looking for specific benefits (e.g., more energy, pain relief, etc.). In many ways the expectation bar has been raised and supplement marketers have responded. Unfortunately the less knowledgeable and skeptical new users can be easily disappointed if near-term results do not live up to expectations and claims. In a recent series of focus groups conducted on Positive Nutrition, I was surprised to hear the extent of the strong negative reactions to the cost of herbal supplements. As one man in Chicago put it, "It's as expensive as can be! I went to a health food store, and someone showed me a bottle. It was s month's supply and it was forty bucks. I said `forget it.' I'm just going to buy better food at the grocery store." The perception of herbal supplements as expensive tends to raise the expectation bar even higher. Several observations from the group sessions may identify key factors affecting herbal supplements' future growth: Of the barriers to future growth, the need for more information may be most important. The traditional herbal users took the time to study and typically shopped at a health food store where advice was more readily available. As use becomes widespread and new users buy their herbal supplements from supermarkets and drug stores where knowledgeable advice is less available, the need for education becomes even more important. While the likelihood of benefit claims leading to disappointed consumers and other marketing mistakes is high, it is also likely that use of herbs, whether from supplements, the fortification of foods and beverages, or from fresh produce, will grow in the years ahead. These products fit so well with the proactive approach to nutrition and health observed today, that they are likely to be with us for some time in the future. The aging baby boomers could be a strong potential market in the years ahead as they cope with age-related health problems and their quest for ways to slow the aging process. Article copyright American Botanical Council. ~~~~~~~~ By Leonard Wood