Almost every morning, Y C Lee, presi-dent of the Malaysian Organisation of Pharmaceutical Industries (MOPI), religiously takes a combination of antioxidant, fish oil, evening prim-rose oil and multivitamins and minerals en-riched with ginseng extract.
That's quite a lot of pills to swallow for a person who does not have any serious health condition. But Lee believes prevention is bet-ter than cure. "I'm a very active person and I have a hectic schedule. I know supplements are no substitute for a proper diet but in the odd event that I don't eat right, I want to make up for it by taking supplements," he says.
Lee's in good company. According to a survey conducted last year, a significant per-centage of Malaysians take supplements. Brand's-UPM Asian Health Survey released last month found that 60 per cent of the 6,114 respondents take health supplements at least three times a week.
A dpa report last year quotes another study by a health food manufacturer in Singapore which found that Asians spend an average of US$18 a month on vitamins and minerals.
Malaysians were not exactly laggards in this pill-popping for health - according to the report, Malaysians spent an average of US$17.30 a month on health supplements, trailing behind consumers in Singapore (US$24.20), Hong Kong (US$22.40) and Tai-wan (US$20.30). Consumers in China and Thailand spent less - US$15.60 and US$11.90 a month, respectively.
While Malaysia may not top the list, the local dietary supplements market has seen steady growth over the years. Lee reckons the domestic pharmaceutical market, which in-cludes dietary supplements, has been growing at an annual rate of 8.0 to 10 per cent in the past decade. The market grew from RM960 million in 1996 to RM1 billion in 1997, he says.
In 1999, the market for prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs - which in-clude vitamins and minerals sold in precise pharmaceutical dosages - was worth some RM1.4 billion, he adds.
Meanwhile, the market for traditional medicines and other health foods, such as herbs and foods and beverages enriched with supplements, was estimated to be worth RM2 billion in the same year, he says.
Dietary supplements, says Dr Tee E Siong, president of the Nutrition Society of Malaysia (NSM), include preparations of vitamins, min-erals, amino acids and mixtures of these nu-trients, as well as herbs and other botanicals.
The market's gradual expansion may be linked to society's growing awareness and af-fluence. More and more people are becoming aware of their health these days, observes Dr Mirnalini Kandiah, a nutrition epidemiologist at the Department of Nutrition and Health Services, Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM). They are taking active measures to ward off illnesses and maintain good health by taking supplements, she adds.
As a result of this, demand for dietary supple-ments has gone up over the years. And phar-maceutical companies - local as well as foreign - are churning out more to meet the growing demand.
When local company Upha Pharmaceuticals Manufacturing (M) Sdn Bhd started out in 1995, 75 per cent of its production were prescription drugs while the rest were OTC drugs - a large portion of the latter comprise dietary supple-ments. Last year, the percentage of OTC drugs rose to 40 per cent of total production.
Lee, who is also managing director of Upha, projects that OTC drugs will make up 50 per cent of the company's total output by 2004.
"From 1991 to 2000, the number of OTC products registered with the Drug Control Authority (DCA), a division under the Na-tional Pharmaceutical Control Bureau (NPCB), has shown a significant increase from 3,331 products to 6,072 products. This indicates that the demand for OTC products, which are mainly health supplements, has increased tre-mendously over the past 10 years," says Chua Wee Yee, research manager of market survey company ResearchLink Sdn Bhd.
She says that another sign of strong demand for health supplements is seen in the mush-rooming of direct marketing companies that sell mainly health supplementary products.
Nutrilite, the dietary supplements line un-der Amway Corporation, contributes about 20 per cent of the international firm's sales vol-ume, and is one of its fastest growing lines.
The performance is repeated in Malaysia. "The nutrition and wellness line contributes significantly to the company's overall sales," says Ainul AzIan, the divisional marketing manager of Amway Malaysia Sdn Bhd. Amway introduced the Nutrilite range in Ma-laysia in 1978 with only one product, the Fam-ily Pack multivitamin supplement. Today, the range has grown to 24 products.
The trend is evident elsewhere, particularly in developed countries whose affluent socie-ties are more health-conscious and can afford to supplement their diet with health boosters.
"About half the population of developed countries regularly use supplements. In the US, expenditure on supplements, which include traditional and complementary healthcare, in-creased from US$13 billion in 1990 to US$38 billion in 1997," says Lee of MOPI.
"The same trend is seen in Australia and the United Kingdom," he notes.
Functional foods and nutraceuticals
Tee of NSM observes that while vitamins make up the bulk of dietary supplements, other health boosters such as nutraceuticals and functional foods have gained popularity among consumers.
Functional foods are conventional foods in-tended to be consumed as part of a normal diet but which can also be modified to pro-vide other health benefits beyond basic nutri-tion, he explains.
For example, fruits and vegetables such as carrots, tomatoes and oranges are rich in carotenoids, which contain beta-carotene and can be converted into Vitamin A.
Nutraceuticals, he says, are isolated or pu-rified from foods and are expected to provide physiological benefits or protection against ill-nesses. Some common nutraceuticals in the local market include spirulina, chlorella, royal jelly and bee pollen.
According to MOPI, the most popular vita-mins and minerals among Malaysians are vi-tamins C, B Complex, E, multivitamins, folic acid and calcium. It's the same in other coun-tries, says Lee.
Meanwhile, popular natural supplements include evening primrose oil, Omega 3 fish oil, gingko biloba, lecithin, royal jelly, spirulina, ginseng, garlic oil and cod liver oil.
Lee observes that most of these products are aimed at benefiting the heart or preventing cardiovascular disease, the number one killer in Malaysia according to the Ministry of Health.
Yee Kit Har, business manager of Nature's Farm (Health Foods) Sdn Bhd, part of a retail chain in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, says the company's most popular products are its antioxidants touted to be able to fight free radicals that cause infections and age-related diseases.
Other than supple ments, organic foods are also gaining popu-larity among health-conscious consumers. Large grocery stores have begun to have a section for organic pro-duce, and while stores that carry only organic products may not be mushrooming, their presence is being felt.
When Nature's Farm first introduced or-ganic products to its shelves several years ago, there were only a few items such as lecithin granules and brewer's yeast. Now, there is a wider range, which includes a variety of beans, olive and sunflower oils and even sea salt.
There is certainly a growing demand from consumers, who are concerned about the ef-fects of environmental pollution and chemi-cal residues in foods, says Yee, its business manager.
Modern medicine and synthetic drugs have not been entirely successful in solving health problems like cancer and heart disease and more consumers are looking for alternatives, says Rajen M, director of Total Health Concept (THQ and managing director of Alterni (M) Sdn Bhd. Both companies produce natural supplements that have seen good sales over the years.
THC's sales grew from RM600,000 in its first year in 1995 to RMS.6 million last year. Rajen expects sales of the Omega 3 fish oil, its best-selling item, to reach RM1.5 million this year.
Hoe Kek Fei, director of Bio-Life Market-ing Sdn Bhd, which distributes imported prod-ucts as well as produces its own natural sup-plements, says the company's sales have grown at between 30 and 50 per cent yearly since its inception in 1999. Last year, Bio-Life chalked up RM9 million in sales. This year, Hoe's target is RM12 million.
The domestic market for herbs and medicinal plants is currently estimated to be worth RM4.55 billion with a dynamic annual growth rate of 15 to 20 per cent, says Dr Syed Kamaruddin Wazir, chief operating officer of the Malaysian Herbal Corporation (MHQ, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Tech-nology (Might), which comes under the Prime Minister's Department.
Pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals make up RM950 million of the total while herbal remedies are valued at RM2 billion and fla-vours and fragrances at RMI.6 billion.
The trend of going back to nature is equally, if not more, popular in other coun-tries. The market for health foods and sup-plements in Singapore is estimated to be worth S$70 million, says "The Market for Health Foods in Singapore", a report prepared for the Canadian High Commission in Singapore in March last year.
Vitamins and minerals make up almost 60 per cent of the total market, the report says.
However, if Chinese herbal medicinal prod-ucts were included in the estimate - 76.8 per cent of Singapore's population are ethnic Chi-nese - the market is worth some S$330 mil-lion, the report notes.
The International Food Information Coun-cil, which is based in the US, found in its "Func-tional Foods: Attitudinal Research" report last year that Americans are consuming more func-tional foods. "In 1998, 52 per cent of Ameri-cans were eating up to three foods for their functional health benefits. That figure has since jumped to 59 per cent - a 13 per cent increase in just two year," the report says.
Meanwhile, the Freedonia Group, an inter-national business research company also based in the US, estimates that the world nutraceutical industry last year was worth US$6.8 billion and growing at more than 10 per cent per year. In the US alone, notes another Freedonia report last year, the US$1.9 billion market for nutraceuticals is expected to grow 6.7 per cent annually to US$2.7 billion in 2004.
Wealth of blo-resources
Such promising growth projections for the natural health foods industry is good news for Malaysia. The local rainforest is the world's oldest and the fourth most bio-diverse in Asia, after India, China and Indonesia, says Syed Kamaruddin of MHC.
"The Malaysian tropical forest is one of the primary centres of biodiversity with an esti-mated 15,000 known plant species, of which 3,700 are known to be useful and 2,000 spe-cies have medicinal value," he says. The rest have yet to be studied and exploited.
Syed Kamaruddin thinks Malaysia should tap into this wealth of bio-resources to sup-ply the growing domestic as well as interna-tional markets. "The global herbal industry was estimated to be US$80 billion in 2000 and the World Bank projects it to be US$200 bil-lion in 2008," he says.
He says that although Malaysia's herbal industry is still in its infancy, it offers huge potential for locals to participate in this lucra-tive business and for the country to become a major global player.
At least one local company has taken the plunge. Phytes Sdn Bhd is a biotechnology firm that cultivates and markets Tongkat Ali products, among other herbal remedies. It re-cently received initial funding of RM20 mil-lion from Malaysia Venture Capital Manage-ment Bhd (Mavcap).
Phytes' plan is to go global, and with Ja-pan, South Korea and the US as likely cus-tomers, both Mavcap and Phytes see great potential for Malaysia to get its foot in the door of the global herbal remedies market.
There are already indications that this is possible. Malaysia has seen very strong growth in foreign demand for its botanicals over the past couple of decades. According to the Department of Statistics, exports of herbs for pharmaceutical use rose - by 14 times - from RM4 million in 1986 to RM56 million in 1996, mainly to Singapore, the Philippines, Australia and Hong Kong.
"There's also room for Malaysia to import resources to produce halal products and re-export them to Muslim countries," Syed Kamaruddin says.
Currently, both domestic and international markets for natural health supplements are dominated by foreign products. Only 5.0 per cent of the RM4.SS billion domestic market for herbs and medicinal plants comprise local products, he points out.
The MHC, however, is ambitious. Its mis-sion is to have Malaysian brands capture 40 to SO per cent of the domestic market by 2010.
There will be a lot of catching up to do before that goal is achieved, though - despite the encouraging growth in exports of local herbs, Malaysia's domestic consumption is still highly dependent on imports. Imports of botanicals for pharmaceutical uses, mainly from India, China and Indonesia, grew almost threefold from RM93 million in 1986 to RM265 million in 1996.
Reducing the dependency on imports, however, is not going to be easy. Local pro-ducers need to adopt more efficient ways of managing their raw materials and packaging and marketing their products, says Syed Kamaruddin. The local industry is also short of the necessary experts such as herbalists, naturopaths and taxonomists, he says.
Most of Bio-Life's supplements, and the herbal extracts used by its therapy centre, are imported, to a large extent because local equivalents are simply not available, says Hoe, its director.
Given such shortcomings, the MHC's goal of having local content make up almost half the domestic market by 2010 does seem daunt-ing. But Syed Kamaruddin remains optimistic.
"We try to assist local producers by match-ing them with the relevant experts and re-search and development efforts, and the good news is, local producers are very receptive to
these efforts," he says.