On a recent Wednesday morning inside NOW Foods’ factory near Reno, Nev., workers are pumping out bottles of dietary supplements, from vitamin A soft gels to zinc tablets.
Eric Maupin is the processing supervisor at NOW’s 130,000-square-foot facility in Sparks. He’s standing near a car-sized drying tumbler that’s blending powders for vitamin D-3 supplements.
“This is our newer machine,” he says. “This unit will produce about two million soft gels during this shift.”
Since COVID-19 hit, the Chicago-based company says its supplement sales have increased nearly 20%. It’s still not enough to meet the demand, says CEO Jim Emme, who attributes the growth to the pandemic motivating people to look 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 says.
That’s also helped startups like Reno-based OK Capsule. Its technology enables brands to sell personalized supplement packets that OK Capsule sorts, packs and ships.
CEO Andrew Brandeis says the company’s revenue grew 25% last year compared to 2020. Last month, 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 says. “Consumers expect more and more customization or personalization.”
The entire supplement industry is booming. Nutrition Business Journal, a market researcher, reports that sales jumped nearly 15% in 2020, the most growth the sector has ever seen. The fastest-selling supplements have been those long associated with cold and flu relief, like vitamins C and D and zinc.
But the science on the efficacy of dietary supplements is mixed.
Jessica Blauenstein, a registered dietitian at the Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, says the people who benefit tend to have vitamin deficiencies that supplements can remedy. But taking large doses of single vitamins and minerals also carries risks. Too much vitamin C, for example, can suppress appetite and cause digestive problems.
“What happens if we’re consistently having nausea and diarrhea from taking something like vitamin C at that high of a dose, that can displace other micronutrients,” Blauenstein says.
That’s why Blauenstein tells patients that strengthening their immune systems starts with what they put on their plate.
“ ‘Food first’ is a great philosophy, mainly because we get a lot more from foods than we can a supplement,” she says.
She points to research showing that a balanced diet with whole fruits and vegetables is the best way to boost your immune system and prevent or mitigate diseases.
Still, U.S. consumers spend more than $30 billion on supplements every year.
Blauenstein says most adults take them without a doctor’s recommendation.
The pandemic offered the industry a shot in the arm.
“There was an opportunity for the industry to capitalize on people’s fear,” says 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.”
The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t allow companies to claim a supplement can prevent or cure disease. But that hasn’t stopped companies from making false COVID-related claims. The FDA has sent dozens of warning letters to brands throughout the pandemic. NOW Foods is not one of them.
Crosswell says health and wellness companies typically don’t try to deceive their customers in the age of social media and internet watchdogs.
“More and more often, the strategy is just to be as transparent as you can,” she says.
As CEO of NOW Foods, Emme says his company has a strict rule when it comes to marketing.
“Our philosophy as a company is don’t say anything that we wouldn’t tell our families,” he says.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2022 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.
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