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Pandemic boosts U.S. vitamin and supplement industry

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Workers in white jackets, hairnets, masks and gloves work at a pill processing conveyer belt.

Workers at the NOW Foods facility in Sparks, Nevada, pack bottles on Feb. 23. Kaleb Roedel/Mountain West News Bureau

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Inside NOW Foods’ factory in Northern Nevada, the manufacturer of natural health products pumps out bottles of dietary supplements, from Vitamin A soft gels to Zinc tablets.

Eric Maupin, the processing supervisor at NOW’s 130,000-square-foot facility, stood near a car-sized drying tumbler that blended powders for Vitamin D-3 supplements. Maupin said it’s one of the newer machines.

“This unit will produce about two million soft gels during this shift,” he added.

Those two million soft gels will help the company meet increased demand. Since COVID-19 hit, the company said its supplement sales have surged nearly 20%. Jim Emme, the Illinois-based company’s CEO, said more people are looking for ways to improve their health and well-being.

“Even if they hadn’t been exposed to COVID, they were trying to do whatever they could to help their immunity system build up,” Emme said.

That’s also helped startups like Reno-based OK Capsule. It has a technology platform that pairs with companies’ e-commerce stores. That allows brands to sell personalized supplement packets that OK Capsule sorts, packs and ships. 

CEO Andrew Brandeis said the company’s revenue grew 25% last year compared to 2020. In March, the company announced it had raised $9.5 million from investors.

“Right now, we’re having a great convergence of technology and wellness that just kind of hasn’t happened before,” Brandeis said.

The fastest-selling supplements have been vitamins C, D and Zinc. But the people who benefit from taking supplements mainly have very low or deficient levels, according to Jessica Blauenstein, a registered dietitian in Reno. She said strengthening your immune system starts with what you put on your plate. 

“Food first is a great philosophy to discuss, mainly because we get a lot more from foods than we can a supplement,” she said.

Still, U.S. consumers are spending more on supplements than ever before. Blauenstein said most adults take them without a doctor’s recommendation.

Supplement capsules funnel down into a bottling line at the NOW Foods facility in Sparks, Nevada on Feb. 23. The company has seen its supplement sales jump nearly 20% during the pandemic. (Kaleb Roedel/Mountain West News Bureau)

Then came the pandemic, which led to supplement brands making false COVID-related claims. The Food and Drug Administration has sent dozens of warning letters to companies throughout the pandemic. 

“There was opportunity for that industry to capitalize on people’s fear,” said Laura Crosswell, an associate professor of health communication at the University of Nevada, Reno, whose research focuses on persuasive messages related to health marketing. “We live in a capitalist society, and businesses are out to make money.”

OK Capsule and NOW Foods are not among the companies that received letters from the FDA. And Crosswell said companies typically don’t try to deceive their customers in the age of social media and internet watchdogs. But they do use social media to promote their products. 

“I think influencers are huge,” she said. “Today, more and more often, consumers trust influencers more than companies themselves and the ads they send out.”

And those influencers are helping to drive sales. The supplement business is now nearly a $36 billion a year industry.

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