Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera Dunal) is one of the most sought-after health ingredients of the moment. The botanical ingredient saw the third-highest sales growth (45.2%) in the US mainstream product channel in 2019, and this rose to an incredible 3995% increase in 2020 within the sleep-support supplements category, according to SPINS data.
However, not all parts of the ashwagandha plant are equal. The roots contain the most powerful and plentiful active molecules yet the sharp rise in demand has squeezed supplies and led to some companies mixing roots with leaves.
We look at five compelling reasons why brands that want to tap into the ashwagandha trend should choose the roots over leaves or other aerial parts.
History of traditional use
Far from being a marketing term, the phrase ‘rooted in tradition’ is a powerful adage that conveys reliability and trust stemming from centuries of tried-and-tested wisdom and experience.
With over 3,000 years of safe use, perhaps no botanical exemplifies this more than ashwagandha root. Known as the ‘Prince of Herbs’ among practitioners of traditional Ayurvedic medicine thanks to the plethora of positive effects it has on human health, ancient texts note that the roots are used for internal consumption whereas leaves are only for topical use.
Scientific research backs up the claims
The functional ingredient has seen a recent revival in popularity around the world as the stress of modern life takes its toll and consumers look for authentic natural products that are deeply rooted in tradition.
Of course, for the discerning modern consumer who can access a wealth of scientific information online, this ancient knowledge provides a reassuring authenticity but is not sufficient in itself to choose ashwagandha over botanical.
Rather, it is the huge – and growing – number of in vitro, in vivo and clinical studies demonstrating the efficacy of ashwagandha root that provide some of the most compelling evidence.
Research shows that ashwagandha root extract has statistically significant benefits in reducing stress and anxiety, improving cognitive acuity and memory, boosting energy, improving immune health, promoting a balanced sleep cycle, and improving sexual function in men and women. It has also been shown to provide specific benefits for sports players and athletes by increasing endurance, strength, muscle size and exercise recovery rate.
Importantly, these studies refer exclusively to the ashwagandha root and not the leaf. In fact, according to the Clinical Trials Registry of India, 73 out of 74 trials (done on non-branded commercial preparations) registered on ashwagandha are on root and root-based formulations only.
Approved by regulatory authorities
This scientific evidence is further validated by regulatory authorities around the world, which have given the green light to using the root of the ashwagandha plant. In Canada, ashwagandha root is listed as an active ingredient in the national database of approved natural health products while the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is currently studying some 15 pending health claims for ashwagandha root. European Medicines Agency (EMA) has an ongoing case making a monograph for Withania somnifera. What’s key here is that the EMA is using only the root in its work to compose a monograph for use as a traditional herbal medicine.
Official pharmacopoeia recommendations around the world, including those of the United States, Britain and India, and the World Health Organization’s monograph for ashwagandha list only the properties of the root.
Long-term growth prospects
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led to a recent surge in demand for natural products that support anxiety, sleep and stress relief. This demand is set to continue with market analysts predicting sustained, long-term growth for the food supplement industry. Precedence Research predicts it will nearly double in size in the next decade, reaching a staggering $279.2 billion by 2030.
Figures from e-commerce giant Amazon, which accounts for more than 70% of online sales of ashwagandha supplements today, show that ashwagandha root-based products grew by 64% year-on-year and that 97% of ashwagandha sold on the marketplace are made from the roots, with just 3% made from a combination of roots and leaves or just leaves.
This may suggest that many consumers are already clued-in to the importance of using ashwagandha roots over leaves, and are even willing to pay the small price premium for a science-backed ingredient.
Within the ashwagandha root and root extract segment, brands can find opportunities for further differentiation and premiumisation. Online sales figures show that brands using KSM-66, a highly concentrated and bioavailable full spectrum ashwagandha root extract made by Ixoreal Biomed, report significant growth rates. Two products using KSM-66 saw their sales surge an impressive 135% and 490%, far outpacing overall category growth.
Adulteration: Harmful to health, harmful to business
Unscrupulous brands may add undeclared leaves to ashwagandha root in order to increase the amount of withanolides, one of the active molecules in the plant. However, not all withanolides are beneficial to health and some may even be harmful.
The American Botanical Council, which recently published a bulletin on preventing ashwagandha adulteration, warned about such practices.
“The inappropriate and unethical practice of increasing the amount of withanolides in ashwagandha root powder and extract by adding undisclosed, lower-cost dry leaf material and/or its extracts has been confirmed,” said Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council (ABC).
“This type of adulteration will fool only those companies and laboratories that do not use adequate analytical efforts to properly test their ashwagandha materials.”
Consumers take food supplements and functional foods because they are looking for specific health outcomes. Even if that outcome is a desire for a general improvement in holistic well-being, they will still want to feel an effect. Brands that try to cut costs by using ashwagandha leaf in their products risk, at best, failing to secure consumer loyalty and, at worst, harming their health but could even undermine the ingredient’s reputation as a trustworthy and effective botanical for health.