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Herbs Continue Slide in Mainstream Market: Sales Down 14 Percent

by Mark Blumenthal

Herb sales fell 13.9 percent in food, drug, and mass market retail stores in 2002, continuing a four-year trend in this sales channel, according to data from Information Resources, Inc., a leading provider of market statistics and trends. The news comes as no surprise to industry members and product retailers who have witnessed the erosion of much of the gains made by herbs in the mainstream market during the halcyon days of the mid-1990s.

Of particular interest is the decline of ginkgo from the top-selling position it held at least since HerbalGram began to report these statistics in 1995. Ginkgo fell to the second spot, dropping 28.9 percent in dollar sales. This is most likely due to the considerable adverse publicity generated in August 2002 when the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a clinical trial on normal, healthy adults 60 years and older in which a leading ginkgo extract did not produce any significant improvement in memory or concentration.1 The negative outcome of this trial was highly publicized by JAMA, including video news releases carried on hundreds of local television stations and all major cable and network news stations. The bottom line message that consumers received was, "Ginkgo doesn’t work," despite strong evidence that it is safe and effective for cognitively impaired adults.

Predictably, the most precipitous decline occurred with kava (52.9 percent) as it was implicated in cases of liver toxicity and banned in numerous industrialized countries (e.g., Australia, Canada, England, France, and Germany).

Ginseng experienced a fall of 30.6 percent. St. John’s wort dropped 38.4 percent, probably due in part to the heavy reporting related to the negative outcome of the U.S. National Institutes of Health-funded three-year trial, in which the popular prescription antidepressant sertraline (Zoloft®) also failed to show effect. Sales of Pycnogenol®, the patented French maritime pine bark extract, fell 36 percent, while grape seed extract, a product containing large amounts of highly antioxidant oligomeric proanthocyanidins and used for similar purposes, fell 24.1 percent, probably due to the fall-off in the market "hype" that characterized the meteoric rise of these two product categories a few years ago.

Some good news: Sales of black cohosh surged 27.4 percent. This may have been the beneficial result following reports in July 2002 that a major government study found that long-term use of conventional hormone replacement therapy may actually increase risk of heart disease and cancer in women. And cranberry, which received little to no media attention, saw a 13 percent increase in sales, followed by milk thistle, which enjoyed a 9 percent increase.

Another trend that might be surfacing is the general settling out and, perhaps, gradual slowing of the alarming drops the herb market experienced over the past few years.


1. Solomon PR, Adams F, Silver A, Zimmer J, DeVeaux R. Ginkgo for memory enhancement: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2002;288(7):835-40.