The NAHS does not keep in depth statistics, but chair John McKee has estimated sales of the herb to be in the region of £30m. He told NutraIngredients.com that he believes use of echinacea is increasing.
High street retailer Boots, meanwhile, has reported that it is selling almost 7,000 packs of echinacea per week - around one per minute.
The reports point to opportunities for manufacturers to use herbals in their products and for retailers to stock them. It also indicates that the market may be ripe for the introduction and promotion of hitherto little-known herbals - such as Frutarom's pink rock rose extract, which has a history of use for respiratory infections and gastrointestinal health.
Of the echinacea gains, McKee said: "I expect it is down to word of mouth. It gets its fair share of negative publicity, but the people who use it know it works."
McKee added that echinacea is particularly useful given the tendency for colds to turn into chest infections, since it is an anti-viral as well as an anti-bacterial. On the other hand, he does not think that fears over bird 'flu that were rife last year had a great impact in herbs said to protect against colds - even though some experts said that a weakened immune system from ordinary 'flu or winter illnesses may make people more susceptible to the human form of the H5N1.
A much-publicised study in the New England Journal of Medicine in July 2005 concluded that the herb did not have a significant effect on infection with a rhinovirus, but the methodology has been strongly questioned by herbal experts. In particular, the study did not use a commercially available product, and dosage was lower than the standard dose in the US - 1g per day compared to 3g.
Data from Euromonitor International indicates that such studies have taken a tolll on sales. The market researcher saw a peak in UK retail sales of echinacea in 2003 at €6.1m, falling to €4.9m in 2005. Its projections are at odds with the retailers', expecting a compound annual growth rare of -2.8 per cent through to 2010.
Euromonitor's view on Western Europe as a whole is more positive, with 2005 sales at €163.7, in 2005 (down from €166 in 2004) and projected CAGR of 0.9 per cent through to 2010. But even though this is positive growth, it is still up against projected CAGR of 4.4 per cent for the entire dietary supplements category.
Boost has also reported an increase in sales of its own label peppermint oil, reputed to be good for digestion. It said this week that it has sold out of the product in 1000 of its 1400 stores, and has had to put in emergency orders.
Boots pharmacist Angela Chalmers put the increase down to more interest in a natural approach to health. "Using herbal remedies is part of that approach".
A spokesperson confirmed that the retailer has seen growth in herbals across the board, but was not able to reveal heard data compared to last year. He said that the most dramatic results have been seen with echinacea and peppermint.
Boots' hypothesis is that people may be buying peppermint to counter the effects of seasonal overindulgence - even though the party season is not yet in full swing. However media reports into the benefits of peppermint may be stirring interest, and there is a general trend towards 'pre-tox' - a new buzzword to describe preparing one's body prior to overindulgence so that the 'de-tox' process is less harsh.