2020 Year in Review Part 1: A Look Back, Plus What’s New & Next for 2021

In November of 2019, a panel of leading industry experts featured in WholeFoods 2020 Industry Forecast discussed the categories they thought would be in demand in 2020. Did they get it right? In large part, yes. None of them had a glimmer of what was to come with COVID-19, of course, but in terms of forecasting would be of interest to consumers, they steered us in the right direction. And importantly, WholeFoods’ readers who acted on their forecasting were set up to be better prepared to serve their communities as the pandemic took hold.

Weeks before “COVID-19,” “2019-nCoV” or even “novel coronavirus” were part of our daily news cycle (the first coverage on www.WholeFoodsMagazine.com was in January 2020), Michael McGuffin, President, American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), pointed out: “U.S. sales data indicate a broad—and broadening—acceptance by American consumers of herbal supplements…We are now witnessing a resurgent and growing focus on healthy living and holistic wellness as a way for consumers to take responsibility for their healthcare and improve quality of life, and herbs are just one part of this overall trend. And I see nothing to indicate that these trends are going to slow any time soon.”

Indeed, as the public health crisis intensified, several herbal ingredients saw steep sales increases, according to data published in HerbalGram, the peer-reviewed journal from the American Botanical Council (ABC). Sales of immune health-related ingredients, such as echinacea and elderberry, saw continued growth in the first six months of 2020. Elderberry sales increased 126% in the natural channel, compared to sales during the same period in 2019. Echinacea products experienced growth of more than 50%.

Also tracking demand, the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) issued the results of a COVID-19-focused consumer survey in August. It revealed that 43% of dietary supplement users changed their supplement routines during the pandemic. “As consumers continue to confront the devastating public health effects of COVID-19, Americans are focused more than ever on their overall health and well-being,” said Brian Wommack, SVP, Communications, CRN, when announcing the findings. “More than three-quarters of Americans report taking dietary supplements and the overwhelming majority of supplement users, 83%, believe these products play an important role in helping to support health and wellness during COVID-19.”

Multivitamins and vitamins C and D saw the highest boost in supplement intake, according to CRN’s COVID-focused survey. And in the 2020 CRN Consumer Survey, released in September, overall health and wellness benefits remained the most-cited reason to take supplements by all users, though immune health is on the rise: 32% cited immune health as their reason for supplementing, up from 27% in 2019.

Personalized nutrition was also identified as a trend to watch, and that was another spot-on assessment. “Consumer interest is not the only driving force behind this trend; emerging science is fostering the industry’s ability to better support individualized nutrition needs through the creation of products and services that meet the individual needs of the consumer,” Steve Mister, President & CEO, CRN, told us at the time. In 2020 we saw that trend merge with another that experts had IDed as an up-and-comer: the microbiome market. At the Naturally Informed virtual event Driving Opportunities in the Microbiome Space held in October, experts discussed the role of the microbiome in personalization, as well as the opportunities for both brick-and-mortar retailers and brands as the personalization trend grows. That talk and more are available to view on demand at www.NaturallyInformed.net.

Another forecast from 2019: Daniel Fabricant, Ph.D., CEO and President, Natural Products Association (NPA), pointed to the need for greater access to supplements. COVID-19 upped the urgency, and progress is being made. In August, legislation that would expand health savings accounts (HSA), health reimbursement arrangements, and flexible spending accounts (FSA) to cover dietary supplements was introduced. “The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that we need to be giving people more avenues and opportunities to save money in preventative health care costs,” Dr. Fabricant said. “This is a commonsense solution that will save patients and taxpayers money. Too much of our focus in this country is on disease treatment rather than prevention. This simple change in our regulations promotes the proactive, preventive approach that we need to adopt if we wish to improve our nation’s health and manage healthcare costs.”

Now, as 2020 comes to a close, industry leaders are forecasting what’s in store, trend-wise, for 2021. Immune health is on many lists, and for good reason, with COVID-19 cases climbing once again (as of press time). But experts also looked beyond immune.

“The global health crisis has changed consumer preferences in new and unexpected ways,” said ADM’s Vince Macciocchi, President, Nutrition, when announcing ADM’s top 5 trends for 2021. “We are seeing a heightened demand for foods and beverages that support immune systems, enhance our mood and reduce our environmental impact, driven in part by emerging human tensions. This has provided a unique opportunity for brands to develop disruptive new products that will forever change the way we eat and drink. It’s going to be a year of innovation, marked by significant breakthroughs in nutrition.”

Topping ADM’s trend list: A proactive approach to nutrition. The company reports that 31% of consumers are purchasing more items tailored for their health. Consumers also are gravitating toward foods and beverages with bright colors that indicate citrus flavors, for their promise of vitamin C content.

Also forecasting 2021, Innova Market Insights points to transparency that meets ethical, environmental, and clean label consumer demands as a top trend. “Transparency throughout the supply chain will dominate in 2021, with consumers searching for brands that can build trust, provide authentic and credible products, and create shopper confidence in the current and post-COVID climate,” said Lu Ann Williams, Director of Insights and Innovation, when announcing the findings. According to the Innova Consumer Survey 2020, six in 10 global consumers are interested in learning more about where foods come from. (For a deep dive into topics related to sustainability, from regenerative agriculture to sustainable sourcing to innovations in packing and more, view the free education sessions from the Naturally Informed virtual event Driving Value Through Sustainability Across the Supply Chain at www.NaturallyInformed.net.)

Another major impact COVID-19 has had on our industry: Nearly all conferences and conventions were cancelled. It was essential, though, that the flow of information continue as we all worked to adjust to the times. WholeFoods Magazine and Trust Transparency Center partnered in 2020 to bring the education and innovation that was missed from cancelled in-person events straight to your home or office via the Naturally Informed Virtual event series. In 2021, we focus on four trends topping the lists of consumer interest: Mental Wellness (from optimizing cognitive function to building stress resilience) on January 20-21; Nutri-Beauty on April 21-22; Active Nutrition on June 29-30; and Healthy Aging on September 29-30. Registration is free and open now at www.NaturallyInformed.net.

Retailers reflect on 2020 in this special edition of Merchandising Insights, Part 2 of 2020 Year in Review.