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Formulating functional foods: How to choose between traditional and innovative ingredients

Article-Formulating functional foods: How to choose between traditional and innovative ingredients

© iStock/Liudmila Chernetska Formulating functional foods: How to choose between traditional and innovative ingredients
When creating functional food products, should brands opt for traditional ingredients that are familiar, trusted, and well researched, or innovative ones that are exciting and on trend?

There are pros and cons to both, says registered dietitian and product development expert Sophie Medlin.

A functional food is a product said to have an additional function, often one related to health promotion or disease prevention, due to the addition of new ingredients or more of existing ingredients – and they are currently riding a wave of popularity.

One in 10 of all food and drink products launched in Asia-Pacific between July 2022 and 2023 carried a functional health claim, while in Europe, consumer interest is high: 57% of Polish adults would like to try functional products that promote better sleep, according to 2023 Mintel data.

But what kind of ingredients should brands use for their functional food and drink products?

Speaking at the Fi Europe Conference at Fi Europe 2023 in Frankfurt, consultant dietitian Medlin, who works with nutraceutical brands on new product development, weighed up the pros and cons of both innovative and traditional ingredients.

Traditional ingredients: Tried, trusted, and cost-effective

Traditional health ingredients – from vitamin D and B vitamins to fibre and omega-3 – have high levels of consumer understanding and trust. They are also generally well researched, tend to be cost-effective, and probably benefit from an authorised health claim under specific conditions of use in the EU.

One of the major downsides is that they may already be supplemented elsewhere, meaning higher levels may not be needed – or may even be harmful.

Medlin said: “You need to have some level of awareness around which nutrients are water-soluble – [in which case] it doesn't really matter if people have more of them – and which are lipid-soluble, [meaning] people can store them in their bodies and end up with too much in their system, potentially causing harm. Be aware of that and make sure you are not over-supplementing people."

Vitamins A, D, E, and K are examples of fat-soluble nutrients.

Innovative ingredients: Exciting but lacking in research

Innovative ingredients include probiotics, prebiotics, polyphenols, botanicals, and functional fibres for glucose stabilisation. Medlin predicted a huge increase in the use of polyphenols in functional foods, and pointed to the benefits of anthocyanins for cognitive health outcomes such as focus and concentration.

Recent years have seen also a huge rise in botanicals such as ashwagandha for stress, L-theanine for sleep and mental health, turmeric, echinacea, CBD, and mushrooms, she noted.

Innovative ingredients are exciting for the consumer and can give brands a market edge. On the other hand, they probably do not have an authorised health claim, are less well researched, and tend to be more expensive. 

For some novel ingredients, brands may want to consider waiting for the research (and possibly the health claims) to catch up with the trend – particularly if they are targeting mass market consumers rather than early adopters.

"My feeling about mushrooms and CBD is that the market is not quite ready for it,” said Medlin. “The research is sort of building and it's getting there but when my clients come to me and say, 'We want to make a mushroom product', I say, 'Just give it another year. In 18 months, we'll be there with the research and consumer understanding'.”

She said there was currently some resistance among the scientific community and conventional medicine community regarding CBD and mushrooms – but also among consumers themselves.

“It's a sticky bit of the market. But in two years, I'll probably be telling you something completely different," she said.

While the public is unlikely to be at risk of over-supplementing with novel ingredients, there may be contra-indications with certain pharmaceuticals.

Some nutraceutical ingredients for mental health or anxiety should not be taken in conjunction with anti-depressants or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), Medlin warned – and since this may be the consumer group most interested in nutraceuticals for mental health, brands should be aware of such contra-indications and communicate where necessary.

Formulating a successful product: Consider ingredient blends

A successful functional food or drink product will probably use both innovative and traditional ingredients, Medlin said.

"What I would encourage you to consider is using both innovative and traditional ingredients in your products, because you get the benefits of both: you get the excitement, you get to be the market leader, you get to talk about exciting innovative products that people haven't used before, but you can also nicely match the health claims."

An example of this could be a probiotic product positioned around the immune health benefits of probiotics and a balanced gut microbiome – between 70 and 80% of the body’s immune cells reside in the gut – and a traditional nutrient such as zinc, which has an approved EU health claim for supporting the normal functioning of the immune system.

When it comes to formulating the product, manufacturers should keep in mind that an excessive number of actives is “a massive turn-off” for the consumer, Medlin said.

“I see some of these companies that are absolutely smashing it in their capsules [and] doing brilliantly in the market but when I look at the ingredient list, they've got some uppers in there, some downers – all sorts of things in there that will be doing crazy things to people, and we don't really understand how or if they work in combination, and whether some things are cancelling out others,” she explained. 

Three is the magic number (of active ingredients)

Medlin recommends using three active ingredients in one product. This will allow brands to provide an effective dose while allowing consumers to attribute the beneficial effect they feel to a certain ingredient.

© iStock/fcafotodigital How to choose between traditional and innovative ingredients

Really narrowing down your chosen actives is important,” she said. “[Three ingredients] will be plenty because you've got stories you can build around that and you're not overwhelming people with information."

Using a sufficient dose is also important. As a consultant who works with manufacturers to develop nutraceutical products, Medlin says she finds it frustrating when companies want to use a dose that is “the same or even smaller than the small dose of their competitors”. 

While this allows the brand to namecheck the ingredient on pack, the user is unlikely to reap any health benefit.