International Business Times

The Global Financial Crisis left most sectors reeling in its wake, but the Vitamin and Supplement manufacturing industry in Australia has since bounced back with rigour. According to a 2015 IBIS market report, 'Vitamin and supplement manufacturing in Australia', the growth of the $1 billion industry over the last five years is largely thanks to “increased consumer expenditure on vitamins and supplements, and growing export opportunities”.

Much of this demand is attributed to a rising health consciousness as consumers recognise the benefits of vitamin pills, supplements and even protein powders. This attraction to the ‘healthy’ has sparked an increase in the volume of supplement companies opening up in Australia, so that even though only a handful of manufacturers dominate market share, small local businesses are also given a chance to thrive.

Slim Secrets, an Australian supplement/nutrition company founded by Sharon Thurin in 2005, is a prime example. The company produces snacks such as the high protein “Bare Bars” and low sugar “Protein Puddings,” and takes pride in not using artificial sweeteners, being gluten free, and maintaining transparency in their ingredient listing. Founded 10 years ago with just three bars on offer, Slim Secrets today has over 20 snack products that are sold in 15 countries, with exports growing rapidly.

Trust is one of the keys to Slim Secret’s success, says Thurin, including staying loyal to customers, producing local, and staying away from cheap ingredients. However, the road is not easy for small ‘healthy eating’ businesses, especially with the recent signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, which has the potential to flood the market with cheap imports from international companies such as Quest and Optimum Nutrition.

“[The deal] is a two-edged sword for us and many other businesses. We are already seeing incredible growth in our exports and getting increased inquiries from potential distributors,” explains Thurin. “The TPP should open new markets for us, improve some of our already established ones, create new opportunities, and provide a more predictable and transparent regulatory environment.

“The other side however is exactly as you mentioned.We now see more US brands sitting on the shelves of Coles and Woolworths, taking the place of local products. We have such great local brands here in Australia that can’t get a foot into supermarkets that it is frustrating.”

It is not uncommon to find Quest protein bars, Scivation XTEND, and Gold standard Whey - all products by American companies that regularly make headlines with reports of steep economic growth - in supplement stores across Australia. However, more of these brands have also started to appear on the shelves of Coles and Woolworths.

The supermarkets themselves are also joining in the chorus of suppliers eager to meet the demand for healthy snacks. Even though Slim Secrets’ “Bare Bars” were voted the number one health & wellbeing product in the Product of the Year (POY) “Consumer survey of product innovation,” the independent survey awarded the ”healthy snack” prize to a Woolworths product from their new “Macro” range.

“There is no doubt that these large grocery organisations are serious competition,” says Thurin, when asked if her company viewed Woolworths, Coles and Aldi as a threat.

“However I do believe that in regards to health and wellness, consumers have a great deal of loyalty to brands they use. Health is one area that they tend not to compromise. Trust is very important with health and supplements and hence for the supermarket shoppers they are still more likely to purchase a known brand as against the budget supermarket brand.”

Despite facing competition from bigger retailers and overseas manufacturers,  Slim Secrets appears to be making the most of a difficult situation. Instead of focusing on pure competition or cutting costs, the company ensures it uses the latest science to justify its use of ingredients, such as Stevia and Maltitol, and low carbohydrate/high protein dieting.

“We don’t advocate meal replacements but encourage real food for meals, and our products are purely snacks designed for a quick on-the-go pick-me-up,” says Thurin. “We also ensure that we add healthy ingredients to our snacks such as chia seeds, green tea, quinoa and more so that we aren’t the typical protein bar-supplement with 30 ingredients listed that no one can read.

“Whilst the brand is Slim Secrets our products are marketed in a way that can appeal to anyone interested in their health, fitness or weight, so in fact it is more of a lifestyle brand rather than a diet brand.”

Healthy promotion is a frame multiple F&B organisations have adhered to in recent years. Coca-Cola for instance, has released recommendations for exercise, weight loss tips, and a reduced sugar beverage called Coca-Cola Life. Alongside releasing a list of health professionals which they have funded over the years, the beverage giant even went so far as to fund a new journal for obesity research (now defunct due to "resource limitations"). This was mainly in retaliation to negative flak Diet Coke had received for its artificial sweetener, Aspartame, which has a negative reputation for being linked to cancer, headaches, depression, and even weight gain.

However Slim Secrets is careful to not just use ‘healthy’ as a marketing tool, especially for an industry at the mature end of its life cycle with highly discerning customers.

“We have steered away from aspartame in our products since we launched 10 years ago. Coming from a family of doctors, and my husband a pharmacist, it has always been important to create our snacks as naturally as possible,” notes Thurin. “We were one of the first supplement companies to use the natural sweetener Stevia in our diverse range of products. This has not been an easy process as stevia can be a difficult ingredient to work with due to its aftertaste. We spent considerable time formulating our snacks so that they could still taste like a decadent treat rather than a ‘diet/fitness/healthy’ product.

“We did consider a range of paleo bars mainly due to the many requests from consumers for these but funnily enough those requests are not coming as often as they were…so has the diet perhaps lost some of its gloss?”

Whether it is a diet product, Pea protein shakes or Paleo bars, Thurin says trust and real science is closely followed by finding a niche in a saturated supplement market, and growing it. For those looking to cash in on this trend, she doesn’t veer far from the advice usually given to entrepreneurs in other markets:

“Because the market is now overcrowded, my best advice would be to find a niche that you feel needs filling, and do it quickly but obviously do your homework thoroughly.  Often the best businesses are started because someone couldn’t find the products or service they themselves were looking for.

“Starting a business from scratch can be hard but truly exciting and rewarding at the same time,” she concludes.  Little did we know when we started Slim Secrets 10 years ago with 3 bars that today we would have over 20 diverse snack products that are now sold in around 15 countries with exports growing rapidly.”

Whether you're a major TNC or a local business, it appears that much like exercise and healthy eating  itself, results take time.