In January, Mintel published a report entitled Nutrition Watch: Antioxidants for Food as Medicine, which explored strategies for using antioxidants in foods and supplements.
The report noted that while interest in healthy ageing and in using food as medicine suggested opportunities for ingredients with antioxidant properties, marketing antioxidant supplements to consumers was not straightforward.
“Since the introduction of ‘antioxidants’ in the context of diet and health, the validity of consumer antioxidants in supplement (rather than diet) format, has been challenged,” wrote Emma Schofield, associate director of global food science at Mintel, in the report.
In Europe, she said the use of the term “antioxidant” had been challenged by regulatory bodies and was therefore problematic to consumers.
The term “antioxidant” can only be used if the product contains a nutrient for which an authorised health claim relating to protection from oxidative stress exists.
Consultant dietitian Dr Carrie Ruxton explained: “‘Antioxidant’ is a non-specific health claim which must be backed up with an authorised health claim related to one or more of the nutrients in a food product. The closest authorised statement is ‘contributes to the protection of cells from oxidative stress’, which isn’t widely understood by the consumer.”
Claim with caution
Ruxton said that some national bodies with a watchdog function, such as the UK’s Advertising Standards Association, don’t allow the simpler claim "antioxidant”, so manufacturers need to be careful when making antioxidant claims in marketing, even for authorised nutrients like vitamin C and selenium.
The Mintel report suggested that alternative strategies could be to pair antioxidant claims with other claims linked to healthy ageing and use them in conjunction with scientifically proven antioxidant ingredients like micronutrients.
“Pair antioxidant claims with well-understood health claims that are linked to healthy ageing, such as eye and heart health,” advised the report.
According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database (GNPD), antioxidant claims are commonly paired with immunity, energy, and heart health claims. Between 2018 and 2022, 25% of global food, beverage and supplement introductions with an antioxidant claim featured an immune system claim, 23% made an energy claim, and 17% carried a heart health claim.
Bolster botanical antioxidants
The report suggested that another strategy might be to add credibility to botanically sourced antioxidant ingredients by pairing them with established micronutrients for which approved health claims exist. Examples of pairings from the market include zinc and ginseng, or red algae and vitamin E.
Mintel reported that between 2018 and 2022, 30% of global food, beverage, and supplement introductions with an antioxidant claim contained vitamin C, 20% contained vitamin E, and 15% featured zinc.
In terms of gaining consumer acceptance, immunity and skin health could be the way to go, as, according to Mintel, these are the attributes consumers associate with antioxidants.
Target tangible benefits
While manufacturers can get around the communication constraints with clever wording and strategic pairings, Ruxton questioned whether the antioxidant benefit was, in fact, the best route to pursue in light of the lack of supporting in vivo science.
“Another factor to bear in mind is what tangible benefit the consumer is likely to get from antioxidant nutrients in the product. Much of the antioxidant evidence is based on test tube studies in cells, not humans eating real foods. We know that certain antioxidants, such as polyphenols and iron, are not well absorbed in the gut. This means there is a risk that consumers will gain very little in health terms from an antioxidant effect,” she said.
“Often the nutrients with antioxidant claims have other benefits that are more tangible [such as] vitamin C for immune support and collagen production, or iron for normal cognitive function and reducing fatigue. It may be better for manufacturers to focus on these benefits.”