To receive the Luxiders newsletter, sign up here.
The supplement industry is a lucrative one. The Europe dietary supplements market size was valued at USD 14.95 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach USD 33.80 billion by 2027. According to BfR, around a third of Germans take vitamin food supplements every week.
The discovery of the importance of vitamins began in the early 20th century. In 1912 Scientists started to investigate what they called “accessory substances” in food. Eventually, these became referred to as vitamins.
Sharon Palmer, a Registered Dietitian specialising in plant-based practices, states that supplements aren’t always necessary, but can have great benefits. “Some supplements have functional benefits, such as melatonin for sleep and probiotics for gut health benefits. It's important to carefully review your dietary supplement regime with your health care provider. Many people do take more supplements than they probably need.”
When considering the sustainability of our diets, supplements are often the last thing we consider. The idea of a sustainable supplement may seem strange, as the environmental impacts of such small capsules must be miniscule. However, despite their size our vitamins are anything but eco-friendly.
Omega-3 supplements are renowned for their unsustainability. The demand for fish to use for the supplement has outweighed the supply of fish, leading to a reduction in fish populations. Some fish that live in the oceans are becoming extinct due to overfishing. Even if many of us don’t take omega-3 supplements (only 20% of the population in Europe is estimated to take the supplement) its impact is devastating.
Due to plastic packing, and neglectful practices there is a huge amount of waste caused by the supplement industry. 79% of packaging ends up in a landfill, where it contributes to C02 emissions. This plastic also tends to be single-use and non-refillable, further adding to the environmental impact.
THE VITAMIN C PROBLEM
Vitamin C is becoming an incredibly popular supplement. Not just in our vitamins, but also in our skin care. Yet, the truth behind Vitamin C is less than appealing. China is the primary manufacturer of Vitamin C which is only just starting to focus on implementing more environmental methods.
Due to the growing consumer consciousness surrounding our impact on the planet, many supplement companies are starting to alter their methods. Although, in the age of greenwashing, it is difficult to know when a supplement is sustainable. Food and beauty supplements alike are trying to become more eco-conscious.
“The main areas to consider are ingredients, production, transportation, and packaging. These are areas that you can consider when choosing supplements. How sustainable are the ingredients in the package? For example, fish oil supplements have been criticized for overfishing and negative impacts on ocean ecosystems. Like you would food products, you can do a little digging into where the ingredients come from in supplements.” - Sharon says.
It is vital the company is transparent, as Sharon explains. “Some manufacturers list this information. Supplements may have ingredients shipped in from all over the world, where they are manufactured into supplements, and then transported around the world again. In addition, you can look at packaging; looking for less packaging and recyclable materials.”
Chaga-extract is found in wild mushrooms that are primarily grown on birch trees. It is popular for its claimed anti-inflammatory properties. Despite these claims, investigations into its benefits are still largely new. Many claim it is a sustainable supplement as it occurs naturally in the wild.
Chaga can either be cultivated or wildcrafted. It grows without any human intervention and is wild harvested. However, it can still be at risk from over-foraging. So, if you are buying Chaga it’s important to go with transparent suppliers.
Microalgae omega-3 supplements are a sustainable alternative to overfishing. As Sharon states. “It's more sustainable to use algae omega-3 supplements than fish oil.” Algae omega-3 helps fish populations recover. It doesn’t release toxins or pesticides into the sea through production either, like farm-based fish oil.
Any genuinely sustainable production method must deliver viable products while conserving natural resources, avoiding pollution, and maintaining social responsibility. New methods focus on reducing waste and the use of energy.
Among the top innovation areas for manufacturing processes is the use of alternative energy sources. Avoiding fossil fuels and opting for solar or wind-powered energy. Focusing on reducing water usage during the agricultural process is also integral to sustainable production.
Supplement containers must protect and maintain the freshness and integrity of products. Shielding from UV light, moisture, and microorganisms is essential. This can often mean a limitation in packaging, with many opting for plastic containers.
New eco-packaging innovations are emerging, but it’s still up to debate whether these are truly sustainable. Glass bottles are becoming more popular. There are also more sustainable plastics including recycled PCR components with resins or paper.
More companies are also exploring plant-based packaging. Paper, moulded fibres, sugarcane pulp, and bioplastics that are usually made from corn, potato, or cellulose, are great compostable options for sustainable brands.