A healthy metabolism means the body can digest and absorb nutrients from food without spikes in blood sugar, insulin, blood fat, and inflammation. If these unhealthy spikes occur regularly and over a long period of time, they can cause metabolic health problems such as high blood sugar, chronic inflammation, type 2 diabetes, overweight, and obesity.
The rise of metabolic health disorders is a growing problem around the world. Overweight and obesity levels have reached epidemic levels in some countries and one study found that only 12% of US adults are metabolically healthy.
There is clearly a huge opportunity for food and nutrition brands to create products that offer genuine solutions to metabolic health problems – but where should a product developer start?
Speaking on a panel as part of Vitafoods Europe 2023, Dr Raphaelle O’Connor, senior product developer and consultant at iNewtrition, noted that metabolic health touches upon several specific areas such as weight management, gut health, and blood sugar management.
“All of those different aspects could be looked at in isolation or in combination depending on the strategy and the positioning that brands and manufacturers want to take,” she said.
Ingredient R&D for metabolic health is ‘dynamic and innovative’
O’Connor presented a map of metabolic health startups operating in different spaces of this emerging sub-category, highlighting the different product development approaches that brands can take.
Ingredient R&D for metabolic health is “a dynamic and innovative space”, she noted. Examples include US startup BioLumen, which has developed a 3D-structured, cellulose-based fibre that expands in the stomach and absorbs sugar and fats to reduce calorie intake and help with weight management, or University of Oxford spin-off Inulox. Currently in stealth mode, Inulox is developing an ingredient that converts 30% of ingested sugar from foods into a vegetable fibre after consumption, helping with blood sugar management.
Other brands are developing solutions for metabolic health from a behavioural perspective, said O’Connor. Noom, for instance, is a digital health company that has developed a weight loss programme designed by psychologists and based on insights from the field of behavioural science.
Which areas of metabolic health do consumers want to improve?
Most consumers are familiar with claims such as “sugar-free” or “heart-healthy”, but how well understood is the term metabolic health – and should brands use this term on their product’s packaging?
"I think there's nothing wrong with putting the claim 'good for metabolic health' on a product,” said Mike Hughes, head of research and insights at FMCG Gurus. “Consumers recognise the importance of having a good metabolism even if they can't necessarily define what that is.”
Hughes presented the findings of a 2022 survey of global consumers conducted by FMCG Gurus, which found there were three areas of health that consumers wanted to address in the following year related to good metabolic health.
Thirty-six percent of consumers said they wanted to improve their waistline or weight; 57% said digestive health; and 9% said blood sugar levels. FMCG Gurus research also found that 36% of consumers associate good blood sugar levels with good heart health, meaning cardiovascular health is a positioning that brands could use on their products.
“One thing that needs to be remembered is that when consumers are seeking out products with active health claims and ingredients, they are more interested in the benefits than the claim itself,” he said. “So, if you're going to put 'supports good metabolic health' on packaging, what you also need to do is explain the benefits to the consumer."
Dealing with potential side effects
Ingredients that are beneficial to metabolic health include prebiotics and soluble and insoluble dietary fibres. However, too much of these ingredients can cause unpleasant effects such as bloating or gas.
Brands must therefore consider tolerance when formulating a new product, along with other parameters such as labelling, regulatory, calorie content, carbohydrate profile, and technical performance.
“Tolerance is important – but when a product is well formulated [side effects] should be minimised,” O’Connor said, adding that ingredient suppliers are usually supportive of product development projects and can work closely with manufacturers to get the right formulation.
Hughes emphasised the importance of avoiding unpleasant side effects to ensure consumer loyalty and repeat purchases.
“Consumers want better-for-you products to be hassle-free and compromise-free so they can incorporate them into their diets long term,” he said. “They will be conscious of side effects and will not re-use these products if they feel that they are suffering from symptoms.”
Brands should therefore be careful to clearly communicate how their products should be used and in what quantities to minimise the risk of side effects.
Seek inspiration from the ‘aspirational’ sports nutrition category
Gut health brands – and the wider health industry in general – should also take inspiration from the sports nutrition category, Hughes added.
“When we look at this market, it's very aspirational, yet many consumers who use sports nutrition products do state that they experience some side effects that aren't dissimilar to those that can occur with probiotics,” he said.
“Nevertheless, the reason consumers continue to turn to these products [...] is that sports nutrition products are seen as fun, trendy, energetic. They aren't positioned as something that's a requirement [with the message], 'You need these or your health will deteriorate'.
“They have an aspirational positioning linked to an energetic, full-on lifestyle, and consumers like that. As a result, that reduces the sensitivity around potential side effects."
O’Connor agreed, saying that an aspirational positioning was "critical" in the field of customised nutrition.
"People usually have a very specific objective and they expect the manufacturer or brand to deliver on that, not only today but tomorrow and in the foreseeable future. So [it is] very important that expectations and targeted objectives are being met,” she said.
“I think the opportunity around innovation is not only to have a product that is backed up by science but also has a support mechanism in terms of services and technology to help consumers on their journey towards wellness."