The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) 9th Annual Botanical Congress covered relationships, problems and solutions, and struggles and how they were overcome—or why they’re still ongoing. Our four major takeaways:
- Industry is working with FDA—and FDA is working with the industry
The Congress opened with Cara Welch, Ph.D., Acting Director, Office of Dietary Supplement Programs, giving an update on FDA’s thinking over the past year. Dr. Welch noted the struggle of the beginning of the pandemic, when information was minimal and panic was high, but said of the agency: “We maintained our mission of protecting public health. We worked to ensure that the nation’s food supply remained uninterrupted. We were also on guard for fraudulent products claiming to treat or prevent this virus, and we mobilized to monitor product claims. Today, the global ‘we’ have identified more than 1,300 fraudulent products claiming to treat or prevent COVID-19.”
Dr. Welch thanked the industry for its support as FDA worked to protect public safety: “We’ve had partners in the industry sending in websites, products, even formal complaints, helping us identify fraud and unsafe products. We’ve also heard the industry speak up clearly to reject the use of oleander as a supplement, particularly as treatment for COVID-19. We’ve seen economically motivated adulteration, but I haven’t seen anyone sweeping it under the rug—rather, the industry is airing it out, warning consumers.”
Dr. Welch also spoke on DSHEA modernization. “FDA is committed to DSHEA’s ‘twin pillars,’” she said. “Preserving consumers’ access to safe, high-quality, and accurately labeled dietary supplements, while protecting consumers from dangerous and unlawful products.” FDA’s thoughts on modernization revolve around enhanced communication and transparency and a commitment to enforcement, and she stated FDA’s desire for a mandatory product listing.
2. While 2020’s growth rate may have died off, the sales bump is here to stay
Claire Morton Reynolds, Senior Industry Analyst at Nutrition Business Journal (NBJ), shared tons of NBJ’s data with attendees. What that data showed: Supplements in 2020 had 14.5% sales growth, the largest growth ever for supplement sales, bringing the industry to $55.75 billion in annual sales. “That means that the market added over $7.08 billion in sales last year,” Morton Reynolds explained. “In previous years, we’ve been adding $2-2.5 billion per year.”
What this looks like on a chart: A huge spike in 2020, followed by an equally huge drop in 2021, and then a leveling-off predicted in the future. Morton Reynolds told attendees not to be too concerned with that drop, though: “While the big spike and then sharp decline look scary, it actually paints an optimistic picture. What we’re seeing is this permanent sales-step in the industry. We have boosted the industry up permanently, in our eyes.”
Some other takeaways from Morton Reynolds’ presentation:
- Vitamins and herbs make up over half of industry sales;
- Vitamins and herbs/botanicals saw the strongest growth in 2020;
- E-commerce supplement sales are expected to more than double between 2019 and 2024—but natural retail is still expected to capture 25% of sales;
- Immunity/wellness is now the gateway into the market for most consumers, suggesting that retailers should use adjacent categories to draw consumers in further;
- And the top growth ingredients in 2021 and beyond are expected to be pre- and probiotics; mushrooms; elderberry, cranberry, and blueberry; and vitamin D.
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3. What’s good for your employees and customers is worth doing
The panel “The Expanded Marketplace Post-COVID: What Now?” featured experts discussing the ways in which they worked with their employees and clients throughout the pandemic. Kristina Tucker, Minister of Commerce and Enlightenment at Republic of Tea, followed Morton Reynolds with a more company-focused presentation. She explained that the company kept an eye on everyone, over the past year—suppliers, customers, employees, other tea companies. In particular, she noted a number of ways in which Republic of Tea kept employee health top-of-mind—investing in a CALM app subscription for everyone, expanding the HR team, regular zoom-based meetings and tea-tastings, and a taskforce that, at the beginning, met twice a day to discuss the impact of COVID on the company and how they could help. As a result, Tucker noted that the team has
Amy Summers, President and Owner of Pitch Publicity, brought a PR perspective to the discussion. “Communication has always been important, but during the pandemic it was critical for our survival,” she told attendees. She made a point of differentiating between marketing and PR, as two different types of communication: Marketing is about money, about the bottom line, about a clear return on investment; PR is about the relationship between a company and its customers, about the ethics of that relationship, about the relevance of that relationship. Ideally, she said, PR would have a seat at the marketing table, but PR can’t be judged by the same metrics. One company she worked with decided to cut PR out of their budget one year—and then asked her to come back, because, Summers quoted, “we don’t know why, but when we cut you out of our budget, we lost all momentum.”
But, Summers notes, it’s not just about the bottom line, not just about the publicized relationship—sometimes it’s just about doing good in the world. For instance, Summers shared this story: “We work with Organic & Natural Health, and we also work with a company called Healthy Directions. They don’t work with each other, at all. But O&N works with Dr. Kecia Gaither, who works at a hospital in the Bronx—one of the hardest-hit hospitals in the country. And we connected her with Healthy Directions, which donated their BeyonD3 to Dr. Gaither’s hospital. We were able to get 800 doctors on the frontlines access to vitamin D, which, many doctors didn’t have time to stop and buy it, and a lot of stores in the area were out of it, and some doctors didn’t know about vitamin D at all, so we were able to educate on that. We didn’t publicize any of this, but all kinds of good things come out of doing good for others—like, for instance, the vitamin D study that Dr. Gaither told us she’ll be doing.” Do good, she said, and more good will come.
4. COVID-19 hit Native Americans hard—and grassroots, community-driven efforts came through
“If you’ve met one Native American, you’ve met one Native American,” joked John Molina, M.D., J.D., L.H.D., Compliance Officer at Native Health Urban Indian Clinic, Board Member of San Carlos Apache Healthcare Corporation. Meeting the needs of hundreds of tribes, of Native Americans on reservations and in urban areas, takes an enormous effort—but those who spoke in the panel “The Impact of COVID on the North American Traditional Healers” made those efforts, and are seeing the results.
Dr. Molina pointed to a disparity in views of health: “In Western medicine, health is the absence of disease,” he said, “but in Indigenous ways, health is presence of balance and resiliency. For our people, health is about wellness and balance, regardless of situation.” This is just one point of contention in what Molina notes is a much bigger problem: An absolute lack of trust in the U.S. federal government. Dr. Molina pointed to the history of European colonization across this continent, of how European “Manifest Destiny” involved genocide against Native Americans. “Decades of violence and land loss and boarding schools and forced assimilation cause trauma for Indians,” he told attendees. “Think about 9/11—you remember where you were when it happened, and you tell your children, and their children. In the same way, our ancestors remembered this trauma, and told their children, and their grandchildren.” A continued legacy of broken promises and further land theft magnified that trauma. “We don’t trust the government,” Dr. Molina said, “and many of the health guidelines and vaccines were coming from the government. This created a lot of tension in the community, as to what we should do.”
One solution, albeit a long-term one: More Native Americans in healthcare. “Native people tend to trust more Native healthcare providers, and that’s just how it is,” Dr. Molina said. “We learned during the pandemic to try to increase the pipeline of natives going to medical professions in all areas, to try to create more equity.” And in the meantime, solutions like urban Indian clinics work to provide healthcare that Indigenous people can trust—“In Phoenix, Arizona, we have 350 tribes represented, so urban Indian clinics have to have the sensitivity to address the needs of all these people.”
A major issue: Loss of culture and language. “Indigenous healing involves placement of the healer’s hand on the patient’s head or shoulder; during COVID we couldn’t do this, which made it difficult,” Dr. Molina said. “Family is also part of the ceremony, but during COVID this couldn’t happen, people couldn’t come together. This was one of the most challenging parts—people began to feel disconnected from their healing ceremonies, from that balance. The people most affected by COVID were the elderly with comorbidities, and we lost elders, who knew our language, our ceremonies. Traditionally, language wasn’t written, it was auditory, so kids would learn by listening to their elders, so now a lot of tribes are dealing with the fact that they’re losing their languages.”
Part of what exacerbated the spread of COVID in Native communities was that many households include multi-generational families. Crystal Lee, Ph.D., MPH, MLS, Founder of United Natives, and her friend Dr. Michelle Tom, partnered to try to combat that. “We rented a hotel room, which we used to quarantine people,” Dr. Lee said. “And then that hotel room turned into three, turned into 10, 15, and then the whole hotel was just to quarantine people, and we ended up buying the hotel. We delivered meals to them three times a day—nutritious, healthy, mostly plant-based meals, 80% fruits and veggies, 20% carbs/protein. We integrated a meditation/breathing instructor, to help strengthen their lungs, and had a clinical staff come in to monitor them.” The results: Out of 700 patients that United Natives quarantined and cared for, 699 made a full, successful recovery.
United Natives is expanding their efforts, now. Seeing a need for behavioral services—due to an increase in domestic violence, substance abuse, and housing and food insecurity—the association is offering mental and behavioral health services, including art and drum therapy, and it’s still offering three meals a day, 100% free. “We offer rehabilitation, not just for mental and behavioral health, but for grief and trauma, which may be what started the substance abuse,” Dr. Lee said. “We take kids, too—we don’t separate families. We have a daycare center, a school site where kids can take online classes, and a medical transportation company to bring people to and from the reservation. We have a garden that clients can look after, and we’re going to implement a sweat lodge for their spiritual use. We also hire within—if clients show progress, we will hire them.” You can find out more at www.UnitedNatives.org.
And Jonathan Nez, Vice President of the Navajo Nation, said that the Nation is focusing on getting vaccinated and finding ways to make the next pandemic easier on the Nation. “Many people don’t have easy access to water—we have to travel far to get it, which makes it hard to clean hands, to clean surfaces. They have animals, and need water for those animals. They don’t have access to electricity. People couldn’t really stay home, then, because they didn’t have water, power, broadband—students needed that, for access to virtual school. And we are a food desert, so we needed to travel to get food.”
It was an all-hands-on-deck mentality, Nez said, and it still is. “We have a strict testing protocol, still. Vaccines are open to anyone—as soon as the vaccines got to our doctors, they went out immediately to satellite sites. We have a mask mandate, and are planning to continue curfews for some time still—the Navajo Nation had two virus surges, compared to the three surges in the U.S., which we attribute to these protocols.”
Looking to the future, Nez says the Nation is working hard to come out of this better off. “We’re trying to look into ways to grow our own food—with all techniques, not just our own. How do we grow food during a drought, how to grow food in fish basins where the fish propagate and fertilize the plants. If we could create a better economic structure with retail stores and better mail infrastructure, that would be great. We need grocery stores, and food sovereignty. If we have to be isolated during this pandemic, then let’s become the better for it. Better parents, grandparents, community citizens. We can become better, and we can change the narrative in the eyes of the world, surrounding the Navajo Nation—we can create opportunity for our children, and our children’s children.”