Recent studies have highlighted diverse benefits related to fall prevention and neuromuscular function, immunity, insulin response, and gut health.
This build-up of scientific evidence has changed the way vitamin D is perceived by nutritionists. No longer just a simple bone health nutrient that survives off the credentials of calcium; vitamin D is now a celebrated health ingredient in its own right.
And thanks to this new perspective, the vitamin has become one of the fastest growing nutrients on the US market.
The US exception
With the help of a good word from talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who told her viewers that adequate intake of vitamin D could be five times current recommended levels, market growth has reached triple digits.
Frost & Sullivan said vitamin D supplement sales increased by a massive 127 per cent in 2008, and by 117 per cent in the first quarter of 2009.
A similar picture comes through in Euromonitor data. Using 2009 prices as a base, the market research firm said vitamin D sales have grown from $141.1m in 2005 to $366.3m in 2009.
And Euromonitor expects vitamin D to continue its onward march in the US with CAGR growth tipped to be 11.2 per cent in the country between 2009 and 2014.
Vitamin D looks unstoppable in the US but in other markets it has failed to make significant inroads. In Australia, vitamin D supplement sales grew from $1m to $1.1 between 2005 and 2009, while in the UK they grew from $5.8m to $7.7m over the same period, according to Euromonitor.
Samantha Chmelik, a Euromonitor analyst, said: “Vitamin D continues to grow, but not at the huge rates one would expect given the buzz.”
Lack of media attention and formulation challenges have been put forward as explanations for the lethargy in the vitamin D market but regulation may be the biggest barrier.
A Frost & Sullivan report published just a couple of weeks ago stated: “Regulatory standards are undoubtedly the primary factor holding back the potential boom of the vitamin D market.”
But regulatory barriers are coming down. Ewa Hudson from Euromonitor said that approval of EFSA’s generic claims with regards to vitamin D and immunity is likely to open a new avenue for growth in the functional food market.
While supplements currently dominate the market for vitamin D, functional foods are making a mark. Dairy products like milk and cheese are the most popular vehicle for vitamin D fortification but juices, cereals, and baby food are also getting a look in.
Fortification of milk with vitamin D is mandated in the US. And in Finland, fortification of fluid milks and margarine products has been compulsory since 2003.
The climate question
The reason behind the Finnish move was that vitamin D deficiency is particularly common in the country due to a relative lack of sunlight. Sun is one of the main sources of the vitamin so in Scandinavian countries that are deprived of sun, the case for fortification and supplementation is at its strongest.
This may also explain why Denmark became the first European country to run a campaign promoting vitamin D supplements.
But Chmelik from Euromonitor pointed out that colder countries are not always the biggest consumers of vitamin D. She said consumption tends to be higher in cooler climes but vitamin D is also popular in warmer countries like Egypt, Turkey, and Greece.
Searching food and drink launches in recent years using the Mintel Global New Products Database (GNDP) suggests that Latin America may even be a hot bed of growth. The scan found that between 2005 and 2010, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico all saw over 300 vitamin D launches each, with the vast majority coming in 2009.
Growth rates in different parts of the world appear to be dependent more on regulation and awareness than climate.
And as the regulatory buckle loosens in Europe and the scientific evidence starts to translate into greater consumer awareness and maybe even a higher Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) figure, the future for vitamin D looks healthy across the globe.