Vitamin D And The Asian Perspective Hype Or Reality!

Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

Vitamin D deficiency is prevalent throughout Asia, especially in developing countries. With supplements and fortified foods in abundance, how else can manufacturers better improve consumers’ health? By Natasha Telles D’Costa, director, visionary science practice: chemicals, materials, and foods—APAC, Frost & Sullivan

In 1948, the World Health Organisation (WHO) defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. This quote has never rung more true than in the current climate of rising diseases incidence due to lifestyles and skyrocketing healthcare costs.

Preventative medicines and nutraceuticals are the torch bearers of the global fight against diseases with vitamins taking on the role of its favourite child. In 2016, global vitamin sales were estimated at close to US$40 billion growing at 6-7 percent year-on-year. While the market for traditional stalwarts such as vitamin C and vitamin B continues to grow, the charge is being led by comparatively later entrants to the market such as vitamin D.

The Vitamin D Market: Let’s Talk Numbers

Vitamin D has continued to fascinate researchers as its link to lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and depression continues to grow. While bone health remains the primary health claim, vitamin D is witnessing growing interest in its ability to absorb minerals such as calcium, zinc and iron—key micronutrients whose deficiency in Asian consumers has now reached the levels of an epidemic.

In 2016, the Asia Pacific (APAC) vitamin D supplement market recorded an estimated value of US$600 million, growing at eight percent. Growth continues to be spurred by rising research on Asian vitamin D deficiency and worries over bone health particularly in ageing Japan and younger Southeast Asia (SEA).

In fact, one of the most interesting facets of the vitamin D industry is its range of varied messaging across the APAC countries that is ironically its biggest strength.


Japan is a multivitamin market accounting for a sales value of approximately US$200 million per year and dominated by vitamin C as a key ingredient. However, growing osteoporosis rates (estimated at approximately 11 percent of the total Japanese population) is driving interest in the bone health sector that is dominated by calcium and vitamin D.

Japanese are not traditionally dairy consumers and hence while dairy has continued to grow, supplements have been sought after to provide vitamin D sources. In addition, the average Japanese consumer pays over two times the cost for a vitamin D supplement than that of their American counterparts; a fact that is driving an influx of non-Japanese supplement manufacturers aiming to capitalise on vitamin D’s ageing related benefits.


Korea is facing the prospect of a declining population but an explosive growth in its ageing demographic. The Korean focus on staying light skinned has severely reduced exposure to sunlight, especially as outdoor activities is limited in order to study for the highly competitive entrance exams for high school and university.

According to the Korea National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (KNHANES), vitamin D levels in Korea are a growing cause for concern. Studies in Korea have found insufficiency/deficiency (<30ng/mL) in 98.9 percent of boys and 100 percent of girls.

A 2008 KNHANES survey of men and women aged 10 years and older found that 86.8 percent of men and 93.3 percent of women were vitamin D insufficient. This factor is driving a growing focus on vitamin D-fortified products in Korea.


Vitamin D deficiency levels in SEA are estimated to be over 50 percent higher than the developed world. However, unlike South Korea and Japan, in SEA it is the younger population that is at most risk of vitamin D deficiency due to a lack of adequate nutrition and exposure to sunlight.

This is particularly true for females where a sun tan is considered undesirable and results in women getting much lesser exposure to sunlight, and therefore they are susceptible to a higher risk of osteoporosis than their male counterparts.

So What Is The Food Industry Doing?

The food industry in APAC has been quick to cash in on the growing demand for vitamin D as a food source as opposed to supplements which have been the traditional form of intake.

Dairy Rules The Roost

In APAC, dairy continues to be the favoured mode of intake for vitamin D-fort i fied foods. However, an interesting factor is that this dairy (unlike in the west) does not have to be from an animal source. For instance, much of the dairy in APAC that boasts vitamin D benefits comes from plant sources such as oat and soya.

Additionally, consumers are keen to view added vitamin D on the packaging, resulting in powdered and UHT dairy options being favoured over fresher milk. This factor has worked well in most Asian markets where fresh milk supply is limited, and powdered and recombined options tend to be the norm.

Fortified Baked Goods Are An Emerging Niche

Fortified vitamin D cereals and bars have been a major driver of vitamin D sales as they capitalise on the convenience trend that is a growing factor in consumer decisions in the Asian populace. The convenience trend is evident from the focus placed on this sector by almost all global cereal majors from Kellogg’s to General Mills. Asia’s growing appetite for breakfast snacks will drive growth of this application.

Breakfast Is King

The vitamin D food market is still primarily focussed around the breakfast sector (most Asians see milk in particular as a breakfast option). Beverages, a major emerging application for vitamin D, are beginning to drive this trend more towards snacking, but breakfast will dominate the vitamin D product offering over the next 5-8 years at least.

This is driving a focus on the APAC breakfast foods market especially with trends such as convenient, traceable foods with value added benefits. Within the breakfast sector, the emerging market for freedom (allergen free) foods, will be a major premium segment that consumers will be willing to invest in as long as it has the key freedom food buzzwords. This represents a growing opportunities for vitamin fortification.

Key Trends: The Ones To Watch

The Asian Fairness Obsession Drives Vitamin D Sales

From India to Japan, light skin will continue to be sought after by the Asian consumer. This trend, though demonised and hated for its unethicality, continues to be a major driver in product choice among the wider populace.

As a result, sun exposure is seen as a symbol of being less affluent and an indicator of a less desirable lifestyle. This aversion to being out in the sun will drive a growing deficiency of vitamin D among Asian consumers (particularly women) and therefore drive nutraceutical sales to combat deficiencies.

Nutricosmetics—The Blue Eyed Boy Of The Asian Consumer

Fortification in APAC particularly in countries like Thailand and Korea is inextricably linked to beauty. This fact will drive sales of products with ‘nutri’ and cosmetic benefits particularly for vitamin D where its skin care benefits are a major plus point.

The rise of the nutricosmetic sector, primarily led by Japanese and Korean skin care brands, will drive growth of this area in the premium space particularly. Vitamin D products will need to provide an enriched (as opposed to a fortified) marketing message in order to drive further growth.

Consumer Triggers Will Define Demand

Companies have traditionally looped countries together by location or size—a fact that the nutraceutical sector has learnt can be a less than desirable strategy. Consumer triggers and bundling together of similar trigger markets will drive a focus on supplement strategy in future.

Vitamin D products will therefore be tailored to factors such as aspirational lifestyles, traceable products, ethic associations etc. The most successful companies will be those that can take ethnic Asian ingredients based on ancient traditional medicine and provide them to the urban millennial with a vitamin D enriched message in a western format.

Trigger evaluation and consumer behaviour will be a primary input for vitamin D product innovation in APAC over the next 10 years and this will also include product packaging and demographic focus such as children’s or elderly nutrition.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The overall vitamin D market in Asia Pacific will continue to be a growth engine. Increasing urbanisation, disposable incomes and westernisation will encourage Asian customers to show interest in these products.

The market however is expected to become increasingly competitive with aggressive market strategies to gain and more importantly retain consumer loyalty. Increased M&A activity and industry first sourcing strategies (due to the regions complex logistical challenges) will be key characteristics of this industry in the future as manufacturers enter and establish themselves in this highly culturally complex market environment.

Developed nations will look to enter this region to boost sales growth from flagging in western markets and the phrase “understand your consumer” will gain increasing importance over the next five years as manufacturers aim to secure themselves a portion of this very profitable market by developing their regional APAC story and connecting with their end user.

The winner and owner of the spoils will be manufacturers who are able to take global products and provide them with a local twist by assessing and communicating concerns that Asians face in their daily life. Vitamin D products will need to have both a demographic and condition nutrition message—but overall they will need a lifestyle message to help consumers understand how they can blend into daily Asian life and enrich it as opposed to just fortification.