Aloe Vera: Ready for Mainstream Health and Wellness?

Aloe vera is a succulent plant native to Northern Africa which is rich in vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals and has a whole host of medicinal properties ascribed to it. For example, studies have shown that it speeds up wound healing, clears up minor skin infections and sunburn, boosts the immune system, aids digestion and acts as an anti-inflammatory. It may also be useful for levelling out blood sugar and blood lipid levels – two highly desirable properties for diabetes management and heart disease prevention.

In short, aloe vera is extremely versatile and fits a number of the 15 major health and wellness positioning platforms identified and researched by Euromonitor International, including general wellbeing, beauty from within, digestive health, immune support, oral health and cardiovascular health.

Overcoming the taste barrier

Despite its impressive array of health benefits and significant potential for giving rise to food and beverage products with multiple positionings, aloe vera has so far failed to make it big as a popular superfood ingredient alongside such high- profile stars as pomegranate, blueberries and cranberries. The primary reason for this is as straightforward as it is unfortunate – the taste of pure aloe vera juice is regarded as downright unpleasant by most people.

Because of this major drawback, aloe vera is much more commonly sold in dietary supplement form. Hong Kong-based Vita Green Health Products Co Ltd leads its domestic market with a value share of 47% through its Doctor’s Choice Aloe Vera brand, available in softgel capsules. The product is marketed as a “detoxifying plant formulation with soothing inflammatory powers”, while also promising to “keep bowel movements more regular”.

Aloe vera is available as a juice, but these products are predominantly sold through direct sales companies targeting a select clientele so determined to benefit from its health attributes that taste and enjoyment have slipped way down the list of concerns. This consumer group takes aloe vera juice medicinally, ie as a dietary supplement, rather than consuming it as a soft drink. Key players include Herbalife and Forever Living Products International Inc.

The latter has started to take the palatability issue into consideration with the recent addition of Aloe Berry Nectar and Forever Aloe Bits N’ Peaches. The manner in which the first product, Aloe Berry Nectar – a combination of aloe vera gel, cranberry and apple juice sweetened with fructose – is introduced with the words “don’t let the great taste fool you, it’s a health powerhouse!” cuts right to the heart of the issue. The latter product, Forever Aloe Bits N’ Peaches, a 100% stabilised aloe vera gel product, is described very enticingly as a “taste sensation” containing “pure chunks of aloe vera bathed in the flavour of sun-ripened peaches”. However, despite these efforts to create a more appealing taste profile and favourable consumer perception, products such as these would still be hard to stomach for the average health and wellness-oriented consumer looking for a delightfully refreshing drink.

Aloe vera and beauty – a well-established connection

To reach mainstream health and wellness-oriented consumers, aloe vera’s rather challenging flavour needs to be effectively disguised. Playing in aloe vera’s favour is the fact that a substantial number of consumers all over the world have already come across this ingredient in skin care products so a widespread association exists between aloe vera and beautiful skin.

Beverage manufacturers have already been taking advantage of this, particularly in Asia Pacific, where aloe vera drinks (although not pure aloe vera juice) are much more common than in other geographical regions. For example, Alo Youth, launched in 2009 in the Philippines by RFM Corp, one of the country’s biggest food and beverage manufacturers, is still enjoying success.

The product contains fragments of natural aloe vera, promoted as helping regulate blood circulation and repair damaged tissues, collagen to enhance skin elasticity, the antioxidant vitamin E as well as L-carnitine for weight management. Most importantly, both Alo Youth’s brand name and the packaging very effectively convey the promise of youthful skin, affording it a clear positioning which appeals to female beauty-conscious consumers.

In China, where the selection of drinks available through retail and foodservice is as vast as the flavour combinations are mindboggling, consumer foodservice supplier Happy Lemon International Ltd offers Happy Lemon Yogurt with Aloe, a soft drink marketed as “good for health and skin”.

Aloe vera’s ascribed skin health, anti-ageing and, to some extent, detox benefits all play strongly to the beauty from within prime positioning platform. This category was the second most dynamic over the 2005-2010 period across the 32 markets in which Euromonitor International conducts its in-depth health and wellness research. Value sales of food and beverage products leveraging beauty from within as their prime positioning platform doubled over the review period, and aloe vera’s potential in this realm remains largely underexploited.

Despite existing consumer awareness, much work remains to be done and industry players are hoping to extend aloe vera’s success in cosmetics and skin care into the food and beverages arena, particularly in markets outside the Asia Pacific region.

Equally good for digestive health and immune support

Digestive health and immune support are two further positioning platforms harbouring much promise for aloe vera ingredients. According to Euromonitor International statistics, the digestive health prime positioning focus ranks third in value, behind general wellbeing and weight management. In 2010, digestive health accounted for 10% of total health and wellness product sales, amounting to US$63.2 billion across the 32 markets. Immune support is a much smaller category (partly due to the fact that the 2010 statistics exclude infant formula positioned in this manner), accruing total value sales of US$2.4 billion in 2010. However, the category performed very well, increasing its value sales by 45% over the 2005-2010 review period.

At present, both these positioning platforms are heavily dominated by products containing pre- and probiotic ingredients, and one of the challenges the industry faces is scouting out the next generation of functional ingredients which credibly convey digestive and immune health properties. Aloe vera is one of the contenders fitting the bill.

Some research has shown that aloe vera juice may aid the immune system by increasing white blood cell activity and the formation of T-cells, and that it contains enzymes conducive to breaking down dead cells and toxins. The latter is key to the detoxification process, which applies to both the digestive health and beauty from within positionings. Aloe vera has a long tradition as a digestive health aid and several studies have confirmed its usefulness in alleviating unpleasant symptoms associated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, such as diarrhea, constipation, cramping and bloating.

UK-based drinks manufacturer Together Health introduced a range of lifestyle shot beverages in 2009, including Aloe Vera Digest Detox, an aloe vera, apple and blueberry juice mix “packed with key ingredients to support a healthy liver and digestive system”.

Cardiovascular health benefits

Some research suggests that aloe vera ingredients may have an application in cardiovascular health. For one, aloe vera appears to possess anti-inflammatory properties. These are linked to its previously mentioned effects on the immune system (inflammation is an immune system response), but clinical studies have revealed that inflammation contributes significantly to the development of cardiovascular disease. In addition, there is evidence indicating that aloe vera gel exerts an anti-hyperglycaemic effect, a property which may help diabetes sufferers control their volatile blood sugar levels. Diabetes is one of the primary risk factors in the development of cardiovascular disease.

A handful of manufacturers are already onto this. South Korean beverages manufacturer Keumkang B & F Co Ltd, for example, introduced two new lines of aloe vera drinks under the brand names Ya-coya Aloe Crush and Aloe Plus at Anuga 2011, one of the largest food and beverage expos in the world, held in October 2011 in Cologne, Germany.

Aloe Plus comes in five flavours – original, pineapple, mango, peach and pomegranate. The company points out that, among other health benefits, aloe vera improves blood glucose levels in diabetics. Ya-coya Aloe Crush, which comes in original and sugar-free variants, is marketed as a refreshing thirst quencher, suitable for people with diabetes.

Possible applications in oral and urinary tract health

Aloe vera’s impressive versatility opens up plenty of other positioning opportunities worthy of exploration. For instance, its soothing and healing effects on the mucous membranes can be harnessed in the treatment of mouth ulcers, a very common and painful ailment. In fact, aloe vera gel has long been used as a topical treatment for mouth ulcers and cold sores.

Aloe vera soft drinks, dairy drinks and even yoghurts are in a good position to leverage an oral health positioning, a health and wellness platform which has so far been almost exclusively dominated by gum. Value sales of oral health prime positioned products amounted to US$16.7 million across Euromonitor International’s 32 health and wellness markets in 2010, achieving a respectable 39% growth rate over the 2005-2010 review period. In order to broaden its target group, it may be advantageous to add probiotics to aloe vera products. Certain strains of probiotic bacteria are known to combat the development of caries and gum disease, and a number of manufacturers, such as Frutarom USA, are working on oral health promoting probiotic ingredients intended for the food and beverage industries.

Furthermore, there is a small amount of research supporting aloe vera’s positive impact on the health of the urinary tract. In fact, the aforementioned Aloe Berry Nectar product, from Forever Living Products International Inc., is positioned as promoting urinary tract health. At present, cranberry juice and cranberry-derived ingredients almost exclusively dominate products positioned in this way, and the addition of aloe vera may well add renewed interest to a stagnant product category. Euromonitor International’s health and wellness statistics show that in the 32 markets urinary tract health prime positioned products contracted by 2% over the 2005-2010 review period. However, sales still amounted to an appreciable US$146 million, warranting NPD efforts.

General wellbeing platform not to be overlooked!

Being highly versatile, aloe vera lends itself perfectly to profiting from the most appealing health and wellness positioning of them all, namely that of general wellbeing which managed to accrue value sales of US$296 billion in 2010 in the 32 researched markets.

A number of players, even those outside the Asia Pacific region where aloe vera ingredients regularly feature in soft drinks, are already employing aloe vera in this way. Germany’s ruling discounter Aldi, for instance, includes Peach-Aloe Vera flavoured water in its Well&Activ private label range, while Engel Foreign Food BV, a Dutch importer of health and wellness products from around the world, offers aloe vera soft drinks in various flavours, including Tropical Aloe Vera Thai Taste, under the Tropical Aloe Vera brand. Its latest addition, featured at Anuga 2011, is Aloe Vera & Green Tea Peach Drink, containing 25% aloe vera and 5.5% green tea.

Despite its burgeoning potential in so many areas of health and wellness, there is still work to be done if aloe vera is to become a key ingredient in mainstream health and wellness beverages, and, indeed, in packaged foods. Besides more research into specific benefits and an ongoing effort to publicise these in the media, manufacturers need to demonstrate to consumers that products containing aloe vera actually taste good. Extensive sampling initiatives will be paramount to pave the way for aloe vera’s entry into the realm of mass-market health and wellness offerings.