Over the last couple of years, you’ve likely noticed that certain products such as dietary supplements are increasingly more difficult to find in stores or online. So, what’s to blame? A combination of issues brought on by the global health crisis has spurred many of the recent product shortages. Keep reading to learn more about the current state of supply chain disruptions and how this complex issue is specifically impacting food and supplements.
Why is there a supply chain shortage?
The supply chain disruptions can be boiled down to a few main causes: raw material shortages, closed shipping ports, and increased consumer demand.
1. Raw material and supply shortages
Did you know that up to 80% of raw materials used in natural products, such as dietary supplements, come from China? (6) Many of the materials used to make packaging for various products are also sourced from China. Multiple lockdowns and staff shortages in China and other exporting countries have severely disrupted the availability of many raw materials. Without being able to efficiently procure and ship products, other countries are now experiencing a ripple effect of product and packaging shortages, (6) leaving manufacturers scrambling to find alternative sources of their supplies. (7)
Did you know? The ongoing war in Ukraine has also impacted the supply chain of numerous materials. Most notably, the production of sunflowers used to make sunflower oil and derivatives has been severely impacted by this crisis. One derivative, sunflower lecithin, is an emulsifier used in many supplements and food products. Interestingly, Ukraine and Russia are the world’s top producers of sunflowers. (8)
Given that many raw materials and ingredients are currently harder to come by, food and supplement manufacturers are now turning to alternative ingredients with permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA is temporarily loosening labeling requirements and allowing the use of ingredient substitutions. Brands are still required to list any allergens or major ingredient changes; however, minor formulation changes to ingredients don’t necessarily need to be reflected on a product’s label. (4) Minor formulation changes include changes that meet the following criteria:
- Safety: the ingredient being substituted does not cause adverse health effects
- Quantity: the ingredient is 2% or less by weight of the finished product
- Prominence: the ingredient being removed or substituted is not a major ingredient and is not one of the ingredients included in a label statement (e.g., “made with real milk”)
- Characterizing or ingredient in name: the ingredient being removed or substituted is not a characterizing ingredient (e.g., strawberries in strawberry preserves)
- Claims: the ingredient being removed or substituted does not affect the nutrient content or health claims present on the label
- Nutrition/function: the added or removed ingredient does not have a significant impact on the finished product
2. Issues at shipping ports
Lockdowns in major exporting countries have led to closed shipping ports, further contributing to product shortages across the globe. (2) It’s estimated that 20% of the world’s 9,000 active container ships are stuck in queues near backlogged shipping ports. As of April 2022, nearly 28% of these backlogs were occuring in China, an increase from 14.8% just two months prior in February. (9)
3. Increased consumer demand
According to a survey conducted by the Council for Responsible Nutrition, 91% of respondents who changed their supplement regimen reported an increase in their supplement use following the global health crisis. Furthermore, 85% of Americans reported that the global health crisis served as a reminder to take better care of their health. (3)
Many consumers are interested in supporting immune function, reducing stress, improving sleep quality, or simply improving their overall health with the help of supplements. (3) Some supplement manufacturers haven’t been able to keep up with the increased demand over the last two years, leading to product shortages.
How to find products amid shortages
While supply chain disruptions continue, finding certain products may be challenging. These challenges may be out of your control, but there are some things you can do to find the products you need.
1. Speak to your healthcare provider
If you rely on a certain supplement or medication that may be impacted by shortages, speak to your integrative healthcare provider, who may be able to provide you with suitable alternatives based on your needs.
Tip: If you’re a parent or caregiver affected by infant formula shortages, speak to your child’s pediatrician for assistance or formula samples, or visit the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services website for additional resources.
2. Buy from trustworthy brands and suppliers
Increased consumer demand and product shortages have unfortunately led to a rise in contaminated products as well as products of lesser quality. Avoid these potentially harmful products by purchasing supplements and other health-related products from trusted retailers with strict quality standards. (5)
3. Purchase from local suppliers
When possible, try to purchase food and other products from local businesses. Domestic supply chains appear to be less affected by the issues impacting other major exporting countries. Consider purchasing produce, grains, meat, and other dietary staples from local farmers markets or other local businesses. Not only will you have access to fresh, healthy food, but you’ll also be supporting your local economy.
4. Check labels
Considering that some manufacturers are making changes to their formulas due to raw ingredient shortages, it’s important to check nutrition and supplement facts labels of your usual products to ensure that you can still use them, particularly if you have allergies or sensitivities to certain ingredients.
Did you know? Some manufacturers are opting to shrink their products to maintain profit margins, so you may notice an increase in cost per dose.
5. Avoid panic buying
Panic buying can further contribute to shortages, making critical products unavailable to those who need them most. It can be challenging to resist the urge to stock up on products you use, but try to only purchase what you need for the time being. (1)
6. Don’t wait until the last minute to purchase what you need
Rather than panic buying or waiting until you run out of a product, plan ahead and purchase products that you’ll need before you run out of your current supply. Doing so will allow you some wiggle room to find products in the event that it is out of stock. For example, when you have a two week’s supply left of a certain supplement, purchase another bottle in the meantime.
7. Reach out to others in your community
If you’re in need of critical items, reach out to others in your community. Family members, friends, or neighbors may have supplies that you’re looking for. Check out social media groups–there are often online groups dedicated to helping neighbors in need. For example, there are several online groups for parents looking for infant formula or breast milk donations.
The bottom line
The global health crisis has affected supply chains and created product shortages by impacting access to raw materials, disrupting shipping ports, and driving consumer demand. Supply chain disruptions are frustrating, particularly when you depend on a product for your health and wellness. If you’re a patient and you rely on a supplement or medication for your wellness, speak to your practitioner for guidance.
- Arafat, S. M. Y., Kar, S. K., & Kabir, R. (2020). Possible controlling measures of panic buying during COVID-19. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 19(6), 2289–2291. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7241580/
- Barrett, E. (2022). China’s COVID-19 lockdown is inflaming the world’s supply chain backlog, with 1 in 5 container ships stuck outside congested ports. Fortune. https://fortune.com/2022/04/21/china-covid-lockdown-shanghai-port-supply-chain-backlog-container-ships/
- Council for Responsible Nutrition. (2020). CRN’s COVID-19 survey on dietary supplements: Consumer insights on usage and attitudes about dietary supplements in light of the coronavirus pandemic. https://www.crnusa.org/COVID19survey
- Food and Drug Administration. (2020). Temporary Policy Regarding Certain Food Labeling Requirements During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency: Minor Formulation Changes and Vending Machines. https://www.fda.gov/media/138315/download
- Food and Drug Administration. (2022). FDA sends warning letters to multiple companies for illegally selling adulterated dietary supplements. https://www.fda.gov/food/cfsan-constituent-updates/fda-sends-warning-letters-multiple-companies-illegally-selling-adulterated-dietary-supplements
- Hayes, D. (2020). Natural products, dietary supplement industries shook by supply chain slowdown. Natural Products INSIDER. https://www.naturalproductsinsider.com/supply-chain/natural-products-dietary-supplement-industries-shook-supply-chain-slowdown
- Reuters. (2022). Analysis: China’s widening COVID curbs threaten global supply chain paralysis. https://www.reuters.com/world/china/chinas-widening-covid-curbs-threaten-global-supply-chain-paralysis-2022-04-13/
- Statista. (2022). Sunflower seed production in major countries 2021/2022. https://www.statista.com/statistics/263928/production-of-sunflower-seed-since-2000-by-major-countries/#:%7E:text=Ukraine%20had%20the%20highest%20production,metric%20tons%20of%20sunflower%20seeds
- Windward. (2022). 1 in 5 container vessels globally is waiting outside a congested port – of which 27.7% in China. https://www.dropbox.com/s/9n60vum232ltc6b/Windward%20AI%20Insights-%20One%20in%20Five%20Container%20Vessels%20Globally%20are%20Waiting%20Outside%20a%20Congested%20Port%20-%20of%20Which%2027.7%25%20are%20in%20China.pdf?dl=0