Vitamins and supplements gain popularity

By Jason Morrison

This article was written for Advanced Newswriting and Reporting at Ohio Wesleyan University, Spring 2000.

Though many people have taken vitamin C tablets, other dietary supplements seem to be gaining popularity. Many people are turning to herbal products like ginseng, kava kava, gingko biloba and others. According to a March, 1999 U. S. Food and Drug Administration report the dietary supplement market is growing rapidly, with yearly sales estimates in the billions.

Mickey Pannell, owner of Pure N Simple Natural Foods in Delaware, said she saw this boom coming.

"The things the health food industry talked about 10 years ago are coming to the forefront," she said. "I knew the industry would grow because of all the good these products do. People see the results."

Pannell said the store has come off a good year and she doesn't expect sales to slow down any time soon. Though she is a dental hygienist and received her master's degree in counseling from the Ohio State University, she has always considered herself an entrepreneur. After trying different businesses, 10 years ago Pure N Simple was for sale and she and her daughter decided to purchase the business.

"I've always taken vitamins," she said. "I've always been a great believer in supplements. We knew we could improve the store and make it more family oriented."

The store's stock includes vegetarian foods, teas, bulk spices, homeopathic products, dried vegetables, breads, and even pet products.

"But the mainstay is vitamin and mineral supplements," she said. "We have some sports nutrition too. We do get some athletes but General Nutrition Centers [GNC] usually gets their business."

Amy Gianero, a manager at the Delaware GNC, agreed that business is good, especially in January when people resolve to eat healthy or get in shape for the new year.

"Actually we sell a lot of everything," she said. "A lot of sport stuff, but really there's something new every week."

Unlike Pure N Simple, GNC is a national chain. According to the FDA report, they controlled 20 percent of the retail supplement market in 1996 with $1.2 billion in sales.

Pannell and Gianero both said customers came from all walks of life. Pannell said senior citizens, students and families, as well as people who need to avoid lactose or sugar are common customers. Pure N Simple has sections with supplements for men and for women, and she said more and more people are getting into herbal remedies, looking for healthy snacks, and trying aroma therapy.

Delaware resident Amy Eckert comes to the store looking for supplements recommended by her doctor.

"She believes in treating disease before it happens," Eckert said. "She looks at genetic history and makes suggestions about how you might overcome problems nutritionally. It's nice to have a place like this in Delaware. It saves a trip to Columbus."

Eckert said she also comes for the store's bread selection and likes to try different things, though often she does her own research about supplements.

Pannell agreed that people interested in natural foods and supplements should do research before jumping in.

"I usually refer people to our little library," she explained. "If you are into natural foods or remedies than you need reference materials. If you have a health problem you need to do research on your own."

Pannell, in fact, can not give her customers recommendations. The status of many supplements is still under debate, and only a doctor can legally prescribe medication for illness. She said bills have even been introduced in Congress to keep supplements off the shelves.

"They're trying to protect the public, and I can understand that," she said. "There are some products I wouldn't sell. But my customers are really good. They read the labels and let me know if something isn't worth having."

Pannell is a member of the National Nutritional Foods Association which, according to its web site, works to support the natural products industry and lobby and monitor legislative and regulatory issues that could affect it. Pannell, for example, has their list of tips for staying in line for government inspections.

Legislative and regulatory issues aside, Pannell hopes to continue to attract families and people of all ages and help them "keep ahead of the game."

"Develop a lifelong plan and try to utilize food," she said. "Read labels to see what kinds of additives are in your food. They may be too little to harm you, but think about if you add things up over a lifetime."

Copyright 2000 Jason Morrison