Canada’s Natural Health Industry

Charting its evolution

Canada's Natural Health Industry

Twenty years ago a natural health aficionado typically frequented one-stop shops that sold everything—herbs, cosmetics, bulk foods, and a few trusted vitamin lines. But the past two decades have seen a major shift.

Now organics are sold in major supermarkets, everybody seems to grow their own herbs, and almost 18,000 nutritional supplements have exploded into venues such as grocery stores and drug stores.

“No longer do you expect to see just one multivitamin at a mainstream pharmacy,” says Penny Marrett, president and CEO of the Canadian Health Food Association. “Now the consumer expects to see a whole range of product. They walk in and start asking questions. They’ve done their research and may need more answers.”

Natural health products (NHPs)—including vitamins, minerals, herbal remedies, homeopathic medicines, and traditional Chinese medicines—now represent a $2.5 billion industry in Canada. A more educated public, dissatisfaction with mainstream health care, and increasing acceptance by health care practitioners are three factors giving NHPs their modern thrust.

Industry purists may yearn for the good old days, but Marrett says there are huge opportunities ahead in this still-growing industry.

Purchase power

According to a 2005 Ipsos-Reid study, 71 percent of Canadians use an NHP regularly, and 77 percent of Canadians agree that NHPs can promote good health.

The latest industry statistics, released in July 2009, indicate that profits, exports, and the number of businesses involved in NHPs and functional foods—foods with added health benefits—have all experienced notable growth. NHPs and functional foods generated $3.7 billion in revenue in 2007, $732 million was exported, mostly to the US, and $148 million was spent on research and development (R&D).

Research based

The science generated from R&D excites Marrett, who says this is part of why the industry is gaining credibility. Vitamin D is a good example. As a result of good research, many organizations including the Canadian Cancer Society now recommend it, a message that has been communicated well to the public. In turn, more acceptance and interest mean a greater political strength.

“Our industry is gaining its voice on public policy and we need to strengthen that voice,” she tells alive. A strong voice is important, for example, in governmental matters. Currently, ‰ the ongoing implementation of federal NHP regulations is a challenge that is creating additional cost and adding uncertainty.

“We’re going to make sure that the regulations are implemented fairly, properly, and reasonably. We’re not there yet,” says Marrett. “But we’ll be there before five years are out.”

The media factor

The media is another factor related to the growing public interest in NHPs. “What’s going to sell next? I don’t know. A better person to ask is Dr. Oz,” jokes Lou Liberatore, owner of The Healthy Bug in Halifax. “Look at acai juice. We’ve carried it from day one, and it sold okay. But now that Dr. Oz mentioned it, it’s huge.”

Since news of the swine flu hit the scene, many retailers report increased sales of products geared toward building immunity, although official health agencies point out that no natural products are approved to fight the virus. Immune-boosting vitamins C and D are just two nutrients sold everywhere, from traditional health food stores and whole food markets to corner supermarkets and big box stores.

“Natural health retailers are one of the best places [to buy them] because they’ll have greater variety and choice than pharmacies and mass retailers,” says Marrett. They also have better informed sales staff to help consumers choose the right products for them.

Consumer comparison

For brands offered in both traditional and mass market stores, consumers have the luxury of comparing price. As to what makes one brand different or better than another, the advice to consumers is, ask. And if a particular clerk doesn’t know, find one who does or who is willing to find out for you.

“It confuses people,” says Craig Walker of 1st Choice Health in St. Albert, Alberta, of overlapping brands and products. He notes that manufacturers have raised the question, “How premium can a product be if you can find it at a discount store?”

Economic pinch

“It’s hardest for the senior community,” he adds. “Many of them are unfortunately stuck with what they can afford. They’re buying cheap products and not getting the results. Now we’ve created a person who doesn’t believe in the NHP industry. If there’s any kind of program that manufacturers should look into, it’s assisting seniors.”

At the moment, however, it’s not only seniors who are feeling the economic pinch. Although there are no concrete statistics, Marrett says the industry has been affected in the sense that people are being more selective and cautious about buying.

“I’m hopeful that as consumers feel more confident, they’ll go back to their purchasing practices,” she says. “I see a very strong, growing, vibrant, innovative industry that is responding to Canadians’ needs, Canadians who are seeking the best possible health for themselves and their loved ones.”

Help near and far

Walk into your corner natural health store and, guaranteed, most people have stories to tell about how their lives have been changed by some form of complementary alternative medicine.

Whether the changes are small or large, that’s where this industry’s heart shines. Whether the changes are made one-on-one or brought about through organized charity, it’s all about providing help.

In 2008 the Health First Network, Canada’s largest association of NHP retailers, raised more than $46,000 for Vitamin Angels. This organization fights malnutrition, a condition responsible for one-third of childhood mortality worldwide.

Their support extends to the violence-ravaged reaches of Third World countries where armed guerilla forces steal food from delivery trucks, but whether out of disinterest or divine design, they let vitamin supplies through.

Giving may be nothing new to the NHP industry, but the scope of this giving is an example of how the industry has evolved—and continues to evolve—for the better. 

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