Colombia's growth prospects, lenient regulations fuel opportunity

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

Getty Images / Lorenzo T81
Getty Images / Lorenzo T81
Colombia represents one of the more attractive market opportunities for dietary supplements in Latin America because of favorable growth projections as well as familiar and fairly lenient regulations, experts say.

When dietary supplement companies look at market opportunities, Latin America is often bundled under one heading. But ties of shared language and culture (Spanish for most of South and Central America and the Catholic Church for the entire region) bind the continent together only loosely. A specific marketing strategy that keeps each country’s particular conditions in mind is called for.

Evolving peace process

In the case of Colombia, the country represents an exciting opportunity because it is a potentially vibrant economy that is emerging from a period of political turmoil. The country is in the throes of trying to implement a peace deal with FARC, the rebel faction that had engaged in a decades-long armed insurrection funded in part by kidnapping, extortion, and drug running.

Serious hurdles remain in the peace process, which has recently been destabilized by the arrest of a prominent FARC negotiator on drug charges​. But the current situation, however fragile, still offers hope of a way forward after more than 50 years of dreary conflict.

Growth opportunities

According to Euromonitor, Colombia currently offers some intriguing possibilities for dietary supplements. In an executive summary of a 2017 report​ on the dietary supplement market in the country, the market research firm had this to say:

“Dietary supplements recorded healthy growth over the review period, with sales driven by Colombians increasingly looking to prevent the onset of cardiovascular diseases and joint and bone conditions, as well as generally age without any significant health problems.”

David Pineda Ereño, a Brussels-based independent consultant with experience in the market said Colombia is often one of the markets he recommends to clients. Pineda operates his own consulting firm called DPE International Consulting​. The country is attractive both because of growth opportunities as well as regulatory familiarity. And entry to the market is among the speediest processes in Latin America, he said.

“When searching for dynamic markets for dietary supplements in Latin America, we recommend to explore your options in Colombia,” ​Pineda said.

“After Brazil and Mexico, Colombia is considered to be the most attractive market due to the continuous growth in the consumption of dietary supplements and also because the Colombian regulatory conditions provide some advantages in comparison with other countries within the Latin American region. In this regard, the Colombian regulations refer to the US FDA, the European Union and Codex Alimentarius,”​ he said.

Euromonitor, in its executive summary, said that the market in Colombia is still in its infancy and lacks the category differentiation that characterizes the supplement markets in North America, Europe and Asia.

“Due to a lack of segmentation, general health remained the most important positioning in dietary supplements in 2017, accounting for well over half of total value sales. Bone health was the second most important positioning, followed by digestive health,” ​the firm said.

Familiar regulations

One aspect of Colombian regulations that should be familiar to US based firms is that the products are set off in their own category with rules specific to them. This is in stark contrast to some other markets, notably Brazil, where products are regulated more based on the ingredients they contain.

“A key characteristic that stands out from Colombian regulations is that dietary supplements are regulated as a specific separate category, which is not included under food or medicines law. The definition of dietary supplements is broad in terms of the wide range of the types of ingredients allowed to be used and recognizes their physiological or nutritional effect,”​ he said.

“However, in practice there are some restrictions in the use of specific bioactive ingredients, including botanicals. The latter must be present in concentrations not exceeding the therapeutic levels and their nutritional contribution must be demonstrated. On the other hand though, maximum levels of vitamins and minerals are based on safety,”​ Pineda added.

Pineda said that labels on imported supplement products are accepted in the forms that comply with the regulations in their countries of origin.  One stricture is that any warnings on the labels must be rendered in Spanish. And claims are possible too, he said.

“Furthermore, dietary supplements may carry nutrition and health claims. Although there is a positive list of health claims for use in supplements, they are required to be scientifically substantiated on a case by case basis,”​ he said.

Regulatory harmonization on the horizon

Pineda said regulatory harmonization is ongoing in the region, so companies playing in the market will need to keep abreast of events. But it represents an opportunity for stakeholders to influence that process in a positive direction.

“It is important to note that while at present the regulation on dietary supplements is not harmonized in Latin America, the Pacific Alliance of Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru is developing its own harmonized regulation for dietary supplements as the health authorities of the four member countries have agreed on a broad definition of dietary supplements. In addition, further work is underway on the ingredients safety, claims, good manufacturing practices (GMP) and registration of dietary supplements,”​ Pineda said.

“Considering the very diverse regulatory frameworks among these countries with significant restrictions on the use of botanical ingredients and health claims, among other factors, the harmonization process in the Pacific Alliance offers an outstanding opportunity for advancing in the regulations for Colombia and the other three member countries,”​ he said.

Internal cultural divisions

When thinking about Colombia as a potential market, it’s helpful to keep the country’s cultural considerations in mind. Colombia is divided into four basic regions: A northern coastal area with two large cities, Cartagena and Barranquilla, an uplands region with most of the money and political influence that features the largest cities of Medellín and Bogotá, the capital, and sparsely populated rural plains and rainforest regions to the east and south.

Alex Obregon Foster, a Denver-based public relations professional and former newspaper editor, learned first hand about the cultural differences these geographical divisions give rise to during her childhood in Barranquilla. When outsiders think of Colombia, they often do so in terms of the dominant upland culture, she said. But as many as 6 million of Colombia’s 48 million people live in the coastal region.

A tale of two Colombias

“Coastal Colombia, and to a certain extent the coast of Venezuela, is much more an extension of Caribbean culture. And the racial mixture is different, too. The African influence from slaves is much more prevalent,” ​Foster told NutraIngredients-USA. In the upland region, more people are a mixture of European and indigenous peoples backgrounds.

Cartagena-Colombia-GettyImages-472552712
Sunset over Cartagena, a city in Colombia's northern coast. Compared to the highland cities of Medellin and Bogotá, northern coast cities like Cartagena and Barranquilla are much more Carribbean in culture. Getty Images / garytog

“In US terms it would feel like going from Colorado to South Carolina,”​ she said.

Foster said uplanders have tended to look down on the people from the coast.

“People from the coast are called ​costeños,”​ she said. “The people from Medellín or Bogotá are called ​cachacos. They look at the ​costeños sort of like they are hicks. That they must be dirty or poor just because of where they come from. The joke stereotype is that ​costeños are loose and happy and just want to party all the time.”

Traditional healers

Foster said there has been a culture of herbal remedies in Colombia. But like other parts of Amazonia, it may not be as well developed as in some other regions, like China or India​, whose herbal medicinal traditions are supported by many centuries’ worth of written documentation.

“I remember that herbal remedies were definitely a thing,” ​Foster said. “There were traditional healers called ​curanderos who used them. They were sort of like a medicine man in a native cult. I feel that generally still existed when I was a kid, and I think if there were an entry point for dietary supplements in that market that might be it.”

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