As the world’s fascination with natural and sustainable foods grows, functional ingredients are having their moment. For ingredient manufacturers, that means isolating and extracting more key nutrients from healthy foods based on in-house scientific research.
Food and beverage companies continue to find new ways to use these ingredients, which can possess health promoting, energy-boosting, disease-preventing, or have cosmetic benefits. At the same time, consumers themselves have become more educated about both the positive and deleterious effects of what they put in their bodies, adding to the demand.
The buzz around functional ingredients will undoubtedly continue into this year and beyond, but it is also evolving. Discussed here are six functional ingredients trends that are expected to dominate the conversation in 2017 and, in some cases, for years after.
The common thread in all of them is end-consumer demand. The more consumers understand or want to understand where their food comes from and how food is farmed and processed, the more educated they become and the more large companies must cater to them.
The first trend to look out for is clear labelling. With consumers becoming better informed, the onus is on food and beverage companies to create food labels that everyone can understand. Gone are the days when companies could sneak in a few four-syllable artificial ingredients and hope consumers would not research them.
Similarly, slapping the word “organic” on a label without offering the “why” is not fooling consumers anymore, either. And in some regions of the world, particularly parts of Asia such as Vietnam, even correct and verifiable use of the word “organic” does not carry as much weight as it does elsewhere.
In the age of ‘Eat This, Not That’, this can be an enormous challenge for ingredient manufacturers and food and beverage companies, as consumers have anytime, anywhere access to the web to search for the origin of any word they see on a label. With one click, they can then share their doubts with their entire social circle for all to see.
Of course, sometimes the words may seem foreign at first. For instance, “glucoraphanin” does not sound familiar. But once it is explained that glucoraphanin is a natural nutrient found in broccoli and cauliflower that might have anti-cancer benefits and could slow arthritis, it becomes much more acceptable.
It is expected more of companies today to understand that the power is now in the hands of the consumer, with transparency on food labels being a necessity rather than a rarity.
Plants, Plants, Plants
The second trend is that of plant-based ingredients and products. While vitamins and minerals remain important, manufacturers of functional ingredients are increasingly turning to plant-based products.
Again, this trend is fuelled by consumer demand. Whether it is glucoraphanin or other functional ingredients, consumers respond better to items they can readily understand. Moreover, recent studies have suggested that the benefits of multi-vitamins may be exaggerated.
Technology is also making it easier and more efficient for ingredients manufacturers to extract nutrients from plants. For example, while traditional methods of extracting these nutrients have been somewhat effective, many are not considered eco-friendly.
Technology such as supercritical fluid extraction (SFE), which involves separating one component from another using supercritical fluids (substances that sit at a temperature and pressure level where distinct liquid and gas phases do not exist), are both more effective and more environmentally friendly. This technology, as well as others, will likely be used more and more in 2017 and beyond.
Creating White Lists
While the move toward functional ingredients is already starting to happen in the mainstream, it is expected that this proliferation will continue in 2017 in the form of ‘black’ and ‘white’ lists.
For instance, many quick-serve restaurants have begun to dip their toes into more sustainable food sourcing, with a few notably removing artificial additives from their products. US-based chain Panera, in fact, has created a “No-No” list of ingredients that it will no longer use under any circumstances.
Other restaurants have done the same. The next step, of course, is for quick-service restaurants to create “Yes-Yes” lists that focus on the natural ingredients they are using rather than the artificial ones they are not using.
If these companies are not doing this already, it is at least in their plans. Functional ingredient use, going forward, is not going to be a ‘nice-to-have’ option. It is going to be a major part of the business. The functional Egg McMuffin might not be here yet, but it will be.
Another trend that will continue in 2017 is the use of functional ingredients for recovery after exercise. As consumers around the world become more educated about nutrition and nutrients, they are becoming more keenly aware that exercise is a critical part of a healthier lifestyle.
These two trends will become tightly linked. For instance, curcumin, a chemical found in some plants, is thought to provide joint support that can aid in post-workout recovery.
Branched-chain amino acids, namely leucine, isoleucine and valine, help facilitate muscle recovery by adding more protein. The progression of protein, from whey to pea to hemp, continues to draw attention as more consumers invest money and time on hard-on-the-body workout programs like P90X.
Long thought of as something that can only be animal derived, protein powders based on plant sources have gained in popularity. More importantly, many of the consumers interested in these products tend to be the ones with spending power, so food and beverage companies cannot ignore the trend.
Many other functional ingredients, such as vitamin C, vitamin E and/or protein, are thought to benefit the body after a workout. It is expected that ingredient manufacturers will continue looking for ways to develop these types of ingredients through their own research and development.
One of the main trade-offs consumers are constantly making is that of health and exercise versus experiential activities such as fine wine and gourmet food. Especially at the beginning of the year, many people turn from holiday eating and drinking to so-called “detox” methods like shakes and cleanses that seem horrible for a few days, but seemingly restore the body to its natural state.
This is misleading, as many people are simply looking for the quick fix. But it does not have to be this way; the body is already equipped with its own detox system that just needs to be unlocked.
For the functional ingredient industry and food and beverage companies, this is a huge opportunity to both educate consumers and give them the products that can truly boost their health. Instead of turning to a cleanse after every rough evening or weekend, consumers can optimise their own body’s detoxification system every day with curcumin, broccoli, probiotics and other functional ingredients.
These types of products can naturally help the liver, kidney, lungs, gallbladder and other organs function better. In an age where consumers seem to want a short-term cure-all solution, it is crucial to help them understand this is not always possible. But, there are functional alternatives to help them.
Later this year, online sales of highly regulated products like nutritional supplements and food to China will begin, thanks to policies that will go into effect this coming May. These policies were originally designed to make it easier for Chinese consumers to purchase foreign items.
The rules will require stringent approval processes for certain goods that are already in the country, but tucked away in specialised e-commerce zones. Brands based in other countries may need to wait up to a year and spend 500,000 yuan (more than US$75,000) to gain clearance.
This could have a significant impact on the functional ingredient industry, as China’s burgeoning middle class has hefty purchasing power. Most experts expect modifications to be made, so the regulations could change throughout the year.
While the above trends are expected to shape the functional ingredients landscape in 2017, the myriad stresses that consumers face every day will also play a major role. Occupational stresses, behavioural stresses (such as the continued proliferation of mobile devices) and environmental stresses brought on by pollution and climate change will continue to drive innovation in functional ingredients.
These stresses will also continue to cause educated consumers to demand for products centred around ease of use, with ‘on-the-go’ capabilities that allow them to cope with these stresses. This trend will continue, even as more consumers become educated on the growing movement of “detoxification,” as highlighted above.
For companies trying to cater to this audience, taking these customers’ specific and general stresses into account and giving them products with the right combination of immediate benefits and long-term viability is the only way to stay ahead.