Here in 2014, there is little doubt that functional foods represent a market segment with continued growth potential and staying power—that is, if the ingredient and food industries can do it right. In fact, functional foods and beverages are poised to be “the hottest growth area of the next decade”—and, in the United States specifically, “a significant growth category”—according to Jeff Hilton, chief marketing officer and cofounder of BrandHive, a marketing firm representing health and wellness brands.
Indeed, supplementation through food and beverages (termed convergence) keeps gaining traction, particularly in the current key wellness areas of energy and performance, healthy aging, immunity, digestion, cardiovascular function, joint support, weight loss, and diabetes. A quick tour of one’s local large supermarket reveals such functional ingredients as calcium, fiber, vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, hemp, probiotics, proteins, and more, in foods and beverages ranging from snack foods and frozen desserts to juices and beverage shots.
Convergence seems to be an area worthy of ingredient suppliers’ attention and investment, as well as the attention and investment of premixers and firms providing technologies for incorporating ingredients into foods and beverages. However, functional foods do present challenges along with great opportunity, so suppliers who are ready to channel time, R&D, and resources into this market segment are advised to do their homework and learn from those already competing successfully in the convergence game.
Having a valuable, sought-after ingredient is one thing; getting it into a food or beverage matrix successfully is another. The latter can be complicated, but challenges are overcome through inventiveness, creativity, and the rigorous application of science.
Russ Hazen, PhD, premix innovation manager at Fortitech Premixes by DSM (Schenectady, NY), admits that there are technical issues involved in the formulation of any product, but the primary factors for functional foods are nutrient stability and organoleptics. For instance, he describes the high heat, humidity, and pressure sometimes involved in extruding food products or processing them with steam. “Many nutrients do not tolerate these conditions well, particularly some of the B vitamins and vitamin C. Even the fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, and E are susceptible to oxidation during processing,” he says. These sensitive nutrients can still be added to products, but the conditions of processing must be considered when selecting the amount of nutrients to add.
One solution to this problem is to add overage, Hazen explains, to account for expected losses. “By conducting stability tests in the finished product, these overages can be optimized to account for the specific losses seen in the manufacturing of a specific product.”
Thomas Douglass, category director, food and beverage, Corbion Caravan (a premixer based in Lenexa, KS), agrees with Hazen on this point. He advises that the anticipated loss of each nutrient caused by such processing stresses as heating, pasteurizing, baking, or shearing, in addition to shelf-life stresses, must be part of the formula from the beginning. And Bob Green, president, Nutratech Inc. (West Caldwell, NJ), concurs: “Many functional foods and beverages require miscibility and water solubility to properly mix in the ingredient. With Advantra Z—our thermogenic bitter orange extract for diet, fitness, and energy—we continue to address and refine these qualities.”
Michael Crabtree, sales manager, sports nutrition and supplements, Bioenergy Life Science (Minneapolis), says that for his company, it is the susceptibility of D-ribose to react with amino acids, particularly those amino acids with high-charge functional groups, which can prove tricky. This hurdle can be negotiated, he says, by “avoiding mixing ingredients that have conjugate electrostatic natures.” Or, Crabtree offers, “Elimination chelation agents, such as copper, zinc, and others, can be added to attenuate the electrical attraction of the target ingredients.”
Even a time-tested ingredient like insoluble fiber can prove difficult to incorporate into functional foods. Jit Ang, executive vice president, research and development for International Fiber Corp. (North Tonawanda, NY), says that working insoluble fiber into food products requiring a smooth mouthfeel or a small serving size can be very challenging. This is because most insoluble fibers contribute some chalkiness or grittiness to end products, and a serving of food must contain at least 2.5 g of fiber to make a fiber claim. “This limits the scope of food products that can be targeted for insoluble-fiber fortification,” Ang says. But, he adds, to overcome this limitation, his company is “currently developing a new class of insoluble fibers that is ‘smoother’ and therefore less gritty.”
Probiotics have been in the market for a while but present some challenges to certain foods. “Traditional probiotics like Lactobacillus acidophilus are very, very difficult to keep alive during processing,” says Michael Bush, senior vice president, Ganeden Biotech Inc. (Cleveland). His company’s star ingredient, the probiotic strain GanedenBC30, forms spores and is therefore hardier during processing. “We have been able to overcome most of the usual probiotic challenges by the sheer physical makeup of the organism itself, and we’ve also become good at knowing where in a particular food application we should integrate the probiotic to get the best from it, especially through processing,” Bush explains. “For example, say we’re talking about a [nutrition] bar. There are a few places you can add the probiotic. If the bar is enrobed in chocolate, you can add the probiotic to the chocolate. If it’s bound with honey, you can work it in there. But you’ll need to determine how long the probiotic will be in there, how hot it’s going to be. You want to be sure you’re not forcing the germination of the bacteria.”
In the case of the bar, Bush says, Ganeden would normally blend the probiotic in with the mix of dry ingredients, then the manufacturer would roll out the bar and pack it. Ganeden would shelf-life test the finished product in its own microbiology lab to ensure the probiotic count is above spec at the end of shelf life.
For drinks, solubility is the key. Agglomeration can come to the rescue and increase the solubility of an ingredient when that ingredient is mixed with liquids, says Walt Zackowitz, director of specialty ingredients for Innovative Food Processors (IFP; Faribault, MN). Agglomeration can also enhance “flowability” and assist with ingredient dosing and dispersion when working with a formula requiring expensive ingredients, he says.
As for ensuring desirable organoleptics, the appropriate product form is crucial, Fortitech’s Hazen says. Encapsulating ingredients and changing processing procedures may be required to retain desirable sensory qualities.
Flavor masking is one option, of course, adds Bob Verdi, PhD, business director, health and wellness, for flavors supplier Virginia Dare (Brooklyn, NY). “Most functional ingredients will contribute ‘off’ flavors to foods and beverages and present challenges to the product developer,” Verdi says. “Two areas where there is a lot of [flavor masking] activity are vegetable-protein enhancement and natural, high-intensity sweeteners, such as stevia.” The proteins can contribute beany, musty ‘off’ flavors that require masking, he explains, and the sweetness profile of stevia can be made to more closely resemble that of sucrose via masking as well.
In addition to seeking innovative and scientific methods for overcoming chemical and technical formulation challenges, ingredient suppliers are also advised not to underestimate the importance of open, detailed, two-way communication with the marketer. “Too often purchasing departments will come to us and ask for a product with few to no specifics on what they actually need,” says Stacy Peterson, president and owner, ConnOils LLC (Big Bend, WI). “We can provide a lot of customization so that formulations work or can be tweaked to work with minimal time and expense. When we have all the specifics we need from the customer, it is uncommon for the initial material to fail.”
Learning from customers what didn’t go well in their trial process, if anything, Peterson adds, is critical. “More and more, food and beverage customers are coming to us for new ideas, especially sports nutrition folks. We love when they share their trial findings with us so that we can lend additional support to help them meet their needs. Usually the outcome is very successful.”
Ingredient suppliers will find the greatest success, Peterson concludes, “when open communication occurs that allows everyone involved to make the right decisions.”
Efficacy in Dosing
Ingredient suppliers understand that their respective ingredients provide the maximum health benefit only when the dose—in the case of functional foods and drinks, the amount present in the end product—is sufficient. Suppliers themselves must remain ever-vigilant about educating marketers on this matter—and on the price point involved.
“Efficacious doses can be characterized as being typically on the higher end of the ingredient’s dosing spectrum,” says Bioenergy’s Crabtree. “This poses inherent challenges to formulating ingredients at levels that can be successfully marketed.”
He adds that food companies generally operate on thinner profit margins than liquid-system companies do. The reasons for this discrepancy, Crabtree explains, include food companies’ navigation of more stringent regulatory oversight as well as food production’s significantly higher cost and greater financial risks associated with a failed product launch. “These things all contribute to a higher price point,” Crabtree says. “And this higher price point exacerbates the likelihood of the price playing an important role in the dose.” However, he warns, “A fairy dusting of this and that does nothing for the consumer, directly impacts the morale of the target customer, and does not stimulate the desire to repurchase.”
Ganeden’s Michael Bush agrees that pixie dusting is still a problem in today’s functional foods market. “Pixie dusting is an issue across the board when you’re looking at functional foods. In some cases, people just don’t want to pay the money to put an efficacious dose of any functional ingredient into a food product. We actually have standards for our customers that require them to use what is our tested minimum [dose]. They have to put an efficacious dose in, or we won’t work with them.”
After all, if a supplier’s ingredient—due to a low dose—appears not to work, it reflects as poorly on the ingredient supplier as it does on the marketer. Bush encourages the industry to self-police on this issue.
Ingredient supplier and encapsulator Balchem Corp. (New Hampton, NY) is frequently asked by formulators what constitutes a meaningful or efficacious dose of choline, which the company provides. Kristine Lukasik, director, applications, scientific, and regulatory affairs for food and nutritional ingredients, has a thoughtful and research-based answer at the ready: “Choline intake in the United States is around 75% of what is recommended. Our typical suggestion, then, is addition of choline at 10% to 20% of the adequate intake—55 to 100 mg—which neatly addresses that intake gap and entitles the manufacturer to leverage the nutrient-content claims available for choline.” This advice, she says, may go some way toward minimizing marketers’ temptation to fairy dust.
Innovate, Learn, Document, and Communicate
Ingredient suppliers, premixers, and firms with the most advantage in the functional foods space are those that provide the following: ingredient-protecting technologies, an in-depth scientific knowledge of the ingredient at hand (and documentation of that knowledge), a willingness to innovate and invest in R&D, a high regard for open communication with and education of marketers, and an awareness of the food industry’s constraints. To that end, International Fiber Corp.’s Ang advises, “It is always best if the project is not rushed but goes through all the required product development stages. This will result in the development of a final product that is superior in eating qualities and will have a higher degree of acceptability and sustainability in the retail marketplace.”
Balchem’s Lukasik states, “There is no substitute for solid science, particularly in the form of clinical studies and formulation stability data.”
Additionally, Ganeden’s Bush reiterates the importance of documenting the ingredient’s safety and efficacy. “We believe that the only way for a company to have a legitimate ingredient is to make sure it is documented as safe and effective,” he says. “FDA GRAS designation is becoming more and more important. Our advice is to either invest in your ingredient or don’t participate in the market.”
BrandHive’s Hilton advises suppliers to proactively “bridge the gap” between their ingredient and product applications. Bring in the food scientists, he urges, and meet the food and beverage people halfway in terms of R&D. “Participate more actively in this discussion to establish credibility for your ingredient with the food and beverage companies, and instill confidence.”
And, finally, Bioenergy’s Crabtree offers the following counsel for the food manufacturers themselves: “My advice to them is to exercise simplicity when developing their products. Take a qualitative approach to development by using only the ingredients for which the regulatory bodies have the highest regard. Functional-ingredient overkill by adding as many functional additives as possible typically has a negative impact on the ingredient sourcing and cost.”