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Next-generation functional ingredients: Challenges and opportunities

Article-Next-generation functional ingredients: Challenges and opportunities

© AdobeStock/Burak Kavakci Next-generation functional ingredients: Challenges and opportunities
The market for functional ingredients continues to expand, with consumers demanding “more and more” holistic and life-enhancing benefits from their food. But this demand brings challenges as well as opportunities, say industry analysts.

Dr Micaela Hayes, innovation analyst with RTI Innovation Advisors, pointed to the blurring lines between the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, and food industries.

“Ultimately, this has led the functional ingredient market to a place where market popularity of certain ingredients often is a bit ahead of some of the scientific evidence,” she told an audience at IFT FIRST in Chicago last month.

This poses a challenge for product developers seeking to enter this space.

“If you want to put a product on the market that can promise the delivery of a functional benefit and compete with a plethora of other products on the market, you really have to be strategic,” she added.

Decide which functional benefit space you want to play in

First, said Hayes, it's necessary to define which functional benefits are most suited to your products of interest.

As the food-as-medicine trend continues to grow, there has been expansion into new spaces, such as products targeting focus, calmness, anti-anxiety, and tranquillity. Ingredients that have an established association with one benefit are now being marketed to improve other aspects of wellbeing.

Hayes highlighted several notable emerging classes of compounds that are piquing consumer interest:

  • Adaptogens – Adaptogens such as ashwagandha, ginseng, and holy basil are known to help resist stress and restore normal physiological functioning; they are touted for a broad range of functional benefits.
  • Nootropics – Nootropics like choline, L-theanine, and ginkgo biloba improve cognitive function or brain performance. They have a smaller market share than adaptogens.
  • Postbiotics – While controversy remains over the definition of postbiotics, which was only officially made in 2019, they pose “interesting advantages in that they are more stable and easier to incorporate in food products compared to other biotics, and may be safer.
  • Fungi – Interest in fungi has grown recently, particularly with regards to their unique bioactives like polysaccharides and ergothioneine, a potent antioxidant; individual types of fungi like reishi, cordyceps, and lion's mane are being evaluated for their health benefits.

Evaluate ingredients for both their scientific evidence and market evidence

Next, it’s “critically necessary to evaluate ingredients not only for market evidence, but scientific evidence – sometimes a difficult ask. Hayes highlighted that market evidence “is not always linear with scientific evidence”, which makes the market entry strategy more challenging.

There are several reasons for this disparity, she said. Some products are making promises around in vitro or animal studies. Some functional spaces, such as tranquillity, don’t have a standard of identity, leaving room for interpretation. Then there are traditional ingredients where historical evidence is being relied on to justify their use, and the science is now trying to catch up.

Looking at ingredients that promote sleep, for example, melatonin is likely to be the ingredient that comes to mind first – but there are alternatives. Hayes gave the example of valerian root – a sedative that activates the GABA receptor that leads to its ability to induce sleep. However, other compounds, such as L-theanine, are associated with sleep because of their ability to relieve stress and the consumer association between relieving stress and improving sleep.

“Understanding this type of nuance and mechanisms of action may help to discern why certain ingredients are being touted for their benefits,” explained Hayes.So whether that is a more direct mechanism of action, as in the case of activating a GABA receptor, or an indirect mechanism of action, such as relieving stress and thus improving sleep.

Another point to bear in mind when making these these evaluations is that they may highlight risks of certain ingredients, warned Hayes. She gave the example of kava: while popular in products promoting sleep, a recent safety review identified that it may affect liver function in regular users.

“Overall, the scientific evidence provides insights to help really navigate the functional ingredients space and discern how to make some of these strategic decisions,” she said.

Define your market entry strategy 

As a business, you next need to determine your market entry strategy, said Hayes.

“Do you want to be a follower of other products on the market? Do you want to be disruptive and play in whitespace? Do you want to just list an ingredient on your label or do you want to make bold claims about that ingredient? she asked.

While there are several elements that play into market strategy, many of these are driven by business decisions. Claim strategy, however, is more directly informed by scientific ingredient evaluation and can take on a variety of different methodsdepending on the type of ingredient and product, the desire to be a follower or more disruptive, and the level of risk.

In some cases, companies rely heavily on consumer awareness, which may lead them to simply list “reishi on product labels and leave the consumer to associate that with the benefits desired.

© AdobeStock/ukjent Challenges and opportunities

It's evident “that there is a continuing need for research on many of these novel compounds to inform and allow product developers to be able to continually play more in this space”, Hayes added.

Consider how to optimise your ingredient’s bioavailability

Ultimately, functional ingredients can only be considered such if they are delivered to and absorbed by the end consumer – meaning formulation considerations are also paramount.

Hayes said developers should understand not only the amount of ingredient needed to elicit a given benefit, but also to understand the matrix in which they are putting that ingredient, “to ensure its survival during processing, during storage, and ensure that it's actually absorbed by the consumer.

The use of technologies traditionally associated with pharmaceuticals is now seeping into the nutraceuticals, she said, with self-emulsifying microparticles and control-released technologies now being evidenced in more applications, while encapsulation methods continue to evolve.

Meanwhile, the use of bioenhancers – wherein compounds are incorporated into a product to ensure the bioavailability of active elements – has been growing; for example, black pepper is often added to products containing curcumin and beta-carotene.

“I've noted several different challenges of entering this market – but I've also highlighted a multitude of opportunities,” Hayes concluded. “Ultimately, this next generation of functional ingredients is really providing the food industry an opportunity to play a role in improving the holistic health of consumers.

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