Supplements: the right combination

The VMS market is growing at a steady rate thanks to increasing consumer awareness of preventative healthcare.

Learning objectives

After reading this feature you should be able to:

  • Explain the current trends in the UK VMS category
  • Identify those customer groups who would benefit from supplementation
  • Manage the VMS category in-store.


The VMS market has benefited from the strong health and wellness trend in the UK over the past 12 months. Data from analysts Kantar Worldpanel shows that sales of vitamins, minerals and supplements are up 5.9 per cent to £431.4m. Increasing consumer knowledge of personal health means many people are now opting for health supplements and multivitamins with a strong emphasis on the use of predominantly natural ingredients.

“Trends constantly change but, from our perspective and talking to our pharmacy customers, the current trends are towards digestive health products with particular interest being shown in probiotics,” says Lizzie Hardy, head of marketing for Probiotics International Ltd. “Probiotic products are increasingly being recommended for use alongside antibiotics as an effective way to replace the beneficial bacteria that antibiotics can strip from the gut microflora.”

Age UK, however, cautions customers to seek health professionals’ advice before taking any new supplements as some can interfere with prescription medication.

Busy lifestyles

Busy, modern lifestyles seem to be having an adverse effect on consumers, with tiredness and stress being the most pressing of health concerns. Supporting their health is a key motivation for exercise among the most active consumers, which creates opportunities for multifunctional sports nutrition that incorporates additional health benefits. Meanwhile, many people who have busy lifestyles and feel they are not able to obtain a healthy and balanced diet through food consumption alone address this issue through vitamin and mineral supplementation.

According to Dr Carrie Ruxton, a dietitian at the Health Supplements Information Service (HSIS), there are two levels of benefit for consumers. The first is a general “helping hand” to meet the recommended intakes of vitamins, minerals and fatty acids. This is important given that certain key groups in the population have inadequate intakes of certain nutrients, she says.

Nutrients that are of concern include:
• Vitamin D: 20-40 per cent of the population is deficient based on blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D
• Iron: one in 10 women are anaemic
• Magnesium: 40 per cent of teenagers and 13 per cent of adults fail to get enough in their diet
• Selenium: up to half of adults and teenagers do not meet the recommended intake.

“A second level of benefit relates to providing therapeutic doses of nutrients for people at certain life stages where requirements may be higher. This includes pregnancy where folic acid, vitamin D, certain fish oils and, potentially, minerals are important.”

NHS guidelines state that all women thinking of having a baby should have a folic acid supplement, as should any pregnant woman up to week 12 of her pregnancy. Folic acid can help to prevent neural tube defects, such as spina bifida.1

Pregnant and breastfeeding women are also at risk of vitamin D deficiency and should take a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms – a point pharmacy teams could raise with expectant mothers.

“Fish oil supplements should be pregnancy-specific to avoid high doses of vitamin A,” confirms Ruxton, “and breastfeeding women should continue with vitamin D and fish oil supplementation.”

“The Government recommends that children under the age of five years take vitamins A, C and D daily, while all children who don’t eat oily fish at least once a week should be offered a fish oil supplement appropriate for their age group.”

Natalie Lamb, nutritional therapist and technical adviser at Probiotics International Ltd, says a multinutrient supplement would be beneficial for teenagers who tend to have the worst diets out of all the population groups, yet the most need for support for their growth and development.

Ageing population

The Hidden Health Challenges Report2, published earlier this year, shows that a large number of the over-50s are falling short of the nutritional goals needed to maintain optimal health. The take-home message is clear, says the report. Supplements, such as a daily multivitamin, can provide an effective strategy for maintaining health, supporting nutrient intakes, plugging dietary gaps and helping to address the nutritional challenges associated with ageing.

Due to weaker digestive systems in older age, it is difficult for the human body to absorb the required nutrients from food. Among the geriatric population, loss of appetite and the weakening of bones are common issues. In many cases, the diet does not contain sufficient calories or the essential nutrients that the body needs.

With the growing interest in healthy ageing, B vitamins, fish oils and zinc have all been shown in randomised clinical trials to support cognitive function, while vitamin D is recommended across the board for the over-65s.

“While probiotics have yet to achieve authorised health claims for gut health in Europe, there is consistent evidence that they offer some benefit in terms of stool consistency and could certainly be of help to older adults alongside dietary advice to boost intakes of wholegrains, vegetables and fruit,” says Lamb.

Going natural...

In order to remain relevant in an ever-changing and evolving category, it is important manufacturers look beyond health functionality. One current trend is a preference for ‘natural’ healthcare solutions.

While Carrie Ruxton doesn’t think the term ‘natural’ is important for consumers when it comes to supplements, what they do feel important is that products come from safe, purified sources and are accompanied by clear information and evidence-based, legal claims. “This is a benefit of being within a regulated market,” she says.

Natalie Lamb advises that, if possible, pharmacies should opt for companies that use more natural plant-based ingredients as opposed to synthetic ones.

Managing the VMS category

Choosing which products to stock and recommend in pharmacy can be difficult due to conflicting information about the benefits of certain supplements as well as a variation in the quality of products with the same ingredients.

“The decision on which are the best products will often come down to the opinion of the purchaser,” says Lamb. “Some benefits, such as a probiotic that does not need to be refrigerated, may be seen as important by customers.”

Highlight products that have some research behind them, are manufactured with high quality control and have cGMP accreditation, she advises. “It may also be beneficial to purchase from companies that are investing in promotional campaigns that could draw more customers into pharmacy, as well as companies that offer in-store support material and training for pharmacy staff.”

Hugo Pengelley, Spatone UK brand manager, points out that if pharmacies offer advice tailored to a customer’s specific needs, they will feel they are coming away from the experience with more knowledge through education. “It is important to provide customers with clear guidance on a variety of different products, what they are for and their various benefits, including natural healthcare options,” he says.

Regarding what to stock, Pengelley points out that while trends and sales are affected by media coverage, there will always be a need for the basic vitamin and mineral essentials such as calcium, vitamins B, C and D, and magnesium.

As consumers become more knowledgeable, the need for standardisation will become essential. At the moment dietary supplements are regulated to some extent, but not as strictly as medicines. Strict standardisation will help consumers make informed choices through improved labelling requirements.

Looking to the future

It is predicted that the popularity of combination dietary supplements and multivitamins will see the share of single vitamins decline by half a percentage point over the next 12 months, while glucosamine and minerals (frequently included in combination dietary supplements) are set to see a 1 and 2 per cent value decline respectively.4

Lizzie Hardy agrees that combination preparations are likely to be the trend in the coming months as well as children’s products, “especially in the run-up to the back-to-school season and keeping children’s immunity up during the winter months”.

The sports supplement market is also predicted to see growth of around 9 per cent between 2016-2022, with protein supplements accounting for the largest share.5

 The VMS market has benefited from the strong health and wellness trend in the UK


Vitamin D

According to NICE, millions of people are at risk from low vitamin D levels and need better access to supplements to protect their health.3 NICE recommends that better supplement availability, more awareness of low vitamin D status and consistent information on who is most at risk are all essential in tackling the problem.

A daily vitamin D supplement of 10mcg is recommended for both men and women aged 65 years and over. Vitamin D works with calcium to help maintain bone health and protect against fractures. Most healthy adults get all the vitamin D they need from safe exposure to the summer sun and from their diet – but older people tend to get less sun exposure.


1. NHS Choices (Online). nhs.uk/chq/pages/ 1122.aspx? categoryid=51& subcategoryid=168
2. The Hidden Health Challenges Report commissioned by the Health Supplements Information Service (2016)
3. Millions of people at risk of low vitamin D need better access to supplements to protect health, says NICE (2014). nice.org.uk/news/press-and-media/ millions-of-people-at-risk-of-low-vitamin-
4. Vitamins and Dietary Supplements in the United Kingdom Nov 2015 | Pages: 37. euromonitor.com/vitamins-and-dietary-supplements-in-the-united-kingdom/report
5. psmarketresearch.com/press-release/ sports-supplements-market



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