Supplements ignite healthy inspiration – State of R and D Report, part 1 – includes related article on the marketing of functional foods

Supplements ignite healthy inspiration – State of R and D Report, part 1 – includes related article on the marketing of functional foods – dietary supplements

Claudia Dziuk O’Donnell

Dietary supplements define functional ingredient trends, offering a glimpse of what’s here today…and here to stay.

Every industry needs its oracles. The “trendmeisters” announce what’s hot and what’s not, while the most daring companies scramble to stay one step ahead of the crowd. When it comes to trends in food flavors and forms, many turn a watchful eye toward restaurant cuisine. But how do you identify up-and-coming ingredients that enhance a food’s healthful image?

Prepared Foods relied on both external and internal resources to explore this very question. Our 11th annual R&D Investment Survey tallied responses from an even 400 food manufacturing executives who revealed which “wellness” ingredients they think are increasing in importance. To add a little perspective to these ingredient trends, we compared the new results with those from our 1995 survey.

Just as flavor trends often first appear in the foodservice industry, ingredients that are developing a “good-for-you” reputation often are used first in the dietary supplement industry. Here’s a closer look at the subject of nutritional ingredient trend tracking.

Dominick’s Finer Foods, a 112-store grocery chain in the Chicago area, lured customers to its stores with radio ads urging them to “come and get those omega-3s” during a summer sale on fish.

Pop vocalist Alanis Morrisette starts one current song with the refrain “How ’bout getting off these antibiotics?” Such references are aimed at a nation of consumers increasingly knowledgeable about their health and the role food components play in it. They also offer subtle clues as to what are emerging, good-for-you food ingredients.

“I hold many consumer nutrition classes. A lot of people are familiar with omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and to a lesser extent, phytochemicals…although that topic is popular with seniors and I have a class on it,” says Nancy Siler, registered dietitian with Dominick’s. “Women’s groups are interested in soy, and I get questions on botanicals. Fiber is resurfacing again, and a few people ask about borage and evening primrose oil. More ask about garlic and glucosamine,” she adds.

A few mainstream food companies track consumer interest in such good-for-you components. However, the dietary supplement industry realizes more tangibly that its own health depends on staying in harmony with consumer “nutraceutical” interests. Not all nutraceutical/supplement ingredients can morph into food fortifiers, but many do, especially as the line between foods and supplements blurs.

“In the evolution of U.S. consumers’ understanding of the benefits of a bioactive ingredient, such an ingredient is first introduced in the dietary supplement market,” said Rhonda Witwer, manager of business development for the Nutrition and Consumer Sector of Monsanto Co. Ginkgo biloba and DHEA are at this stage. As the ingredient continues to emerge, it is picked up by innovative food companies. Soy protein, probiotics and omega-3s are at this point, noted Witwer. Vitamin E and folic acid represent ingredients that continue in a “growth stage” of consumer understanding of their implied benefits, while traditional vitamins and minerals have matured into full acceptance by consumers and mainstream food companies.

Ingredients chosen for dietary supplement products undergo selection criteria that differ from those for traditional food ingredients…and input is obtained from many sources.

“When we work on new product formulations, we first discuss what would be intriguing concepts in different parts of the world,” says John Venardos, vice president of regulatory affairs for Herbalife International, Inglewood, Calif., a company with a range of food, dietary supplement and personal care products in 38 countries. “We ask our contract manufacturing and supply houses to assist us for ideas on ingredients that would be useful to our consumers and complement our line.”

“We consider labeling claims and safety issues. We look at scientific data and animal and human clinical studies, and we look at regulations on the bioactive components…what are the permitted levels and what precautionary statements are needed,” says Venardos. The information is shared among Herbalife’s marketing, R&D, manufacturing and advisory groups, and a new product is initiated.

“Keeping a pulse on dietary supplement marketers helps to indicate what will be popular tomorrow, but it is more important to ask ‘Why?,'” says Brian Keating, Sage Group, a Seattle-based market research firm.

Fleeting Fad or Timeless Trend?

“Everything here is being promoted as useful for either longevity, sex, growing hair, losing weight or gaining muscle,” noted an attendee at the recent Natural Products Expo East, a show with heavy emphasis on dietary supplements.

Although the observation at first seems less than studied, the product benefits all reflect one of two major dietary supplement drivers: consumer interest in performance enhancement or in health benefits. Interest in health, in turn, is partly propelled by the “Age Wave,” or tsunami of aging baby boomers. For example, ingredients that address age-related diseases – such as chondroitin sulfate for arthritis or antioxidants for longevity and cardiovascular diseases – can fit into a classic marketing strategy as they meet the needs of a growing market segment.

Similarly, the market potential for other wellness ingredients can be determined by looking at the numbers of consumers with various health ailments, such as diabetes or high cholesterol, that the ingredient is purported to ameliorate.

Some companies translate this approach into a method to choose nutritional ingredients. “We use five antioxidants in our Clif Bar,” says Buzz Truitt, COO of Berkeley, Calif.-based Clif Bar Inc., named one of the nation’s top 500 fastest-growing companies by Inc. magazine. “Antioxidant selection is based on health properties that we are looking for: Beta-carotene to protect against UV light damage, vitamin E to prevent red blood cell damage, and vitamin C to benefit connective tissues, the immune system and healthy bones. We also include selenium and green tea extract [for specific benefits].”

Changing Attitudes

% executives reporting ingredient is increasing in importance

1995 1999

Ingredient R&D R&D Marketing

Antioxidants 22 36 38

Calcium 15 36 39

Vitamin E 12 30 21

Dietary fiber 15 27 23

Vitamin C 13 26 28

Folic acid 8 26 18

Omega-3 fatty acids 7 26 24

Ginseng 3 20 23

Garlic 6 18 13

Beta-carotene 17 20 17

Isoflavones – 19 13

Vitamin A 11 17 17

Green tea extract – 17 13

Ginkgo biloba – 16 18

High oleic fats/oils – 13 11

Oligosaccharides 5 14 4

Yogurt cultures 8 13 18

Fish oils 4 11 17

Chromium picolinate – 8 7

Choline – 6 3

1995 and 1999 Prepared Foods R&D Investment Surveys

1995, n = 736 R&D; 1999, n = 265 R&D, n = 71 marketing managers

Both the 1995 and 1999 Prepared Foods R&D Investment Surveys asked

whether or not specific health-enhancing ingredients were seen as

“Increasing in importance.” Across the board in our 1999 survey,

such ingredients are seen as being more important compared to four

years earlier. As might be expected, a respondent’s company size had

less impact than the primary products the company produced, such as

dairy, baked goods, and so on. (See page 56 for survey methodology.)


Such decisions are based on perceptions of what Clif Bar’s athletic-minded customers find of value. How does a company determine which nutritional ingredients are gaining a good-for-you reputation?

“Monitor the media and clinical research studies,” says Keating. For example, “Dateline” and “20/20’s” Barbara Walters made St. John’s wort and kava-kava very popular. Baseball sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both are reported to use creatine, an amino acid supplement. More controversially, McGwire also uses androstendiol that triggers the production of testosterone in the body. AS they raced for the home run record, they – and the supplements they use – became “stars.”

Mainstream media is just as eager to report the bad news, especially in regard to ingredient efficacy and safety issues. Although, notes Keating, negative media is not necessarily always bad if it allows a company to leverage massive consumer interest in certain ingredients.

Proof in the Pudding

Marketing products that are subject to rapid descents from grace gives many companies the shudders. One of the best ways to protect – or at least prepare for this – is to carefully follow scientific research.

John Troup, vice president of scientific affairs, General Nutrition Companies (GNC), has noted the shortest product life cycles occur in products backed by strong or “me-too” marketing strategies and no scientific evidence. Products have longer life cycles if backed by moderate to strong science and continuous marketing. Products with strong science and consumer awareness behind them have the lengthiest life cycles.

Tracking research results goes beyond what appears in media or even scientific journals. To best take advantage of where the industry is heading, companies must keep tabs on what clinical trials are currently underway and what their results are likely to be. Ongoing waves of new research findings will have a profound effect on the industry as it validates specific ingredients and their impact on various populations, says Keating.

Keating also notes other factors likely to have strong influence on ingredient popularity, such as the recent entry of large pharmaceutical companies with accompanying marketing dollars into the supplement industry.

Other areas to closely monitor include the regulatory assessment of ingredients and national economic conditions that can impact higher-priced nutritionals.

Ingredient Crossroads

For new product development ideas, companies should use the information gathered and look for “critical mass intersections,” says Keating. These are points where favorable research, regulatory and media conditions create positive marketing environments. Keating, who assumes the “trendmeister” role for clients worldwide, offers the following examples of emerging ingredients:

* Probiotics (acidophilus and bifido bacterial cultures and fermented foods such as yogurt) and prebiotics (inulin, oligosaccharides). Why? Scientific research strongly supports their role in maintaining a healthy digestive tract, such as after antibiotic use. The products rest at a timely intersection of international concerns for food safety and increased attention on the abuse of antibiotics. (Thanks again, Alanis Morrisette!)

* Green tea extracts. Why? Most people in the U.S. are not consuming the recommended four to six cups a day regarded as beneficial by some research studies. The product has a safe track record, friendly image, and is inexpensive.

* Natural/synthetic crossover compounds. Natural ingredients that can be used as alternatives to more damaging synthetic compounds will increase in popularity. Ultimately, products containing natural and synthetic ingredients will become increasingly popular, says Keating.

When all is said and done, however, the “G,” or gut, factor is perhaps most crucial when assessing new product and ingredient opportunities. Intuition, a gut-level feel for what makes sense at a given time, is key, says Keating.

Nutraceuticals and Functional Foods: Sources, Extraction, Separation and Purification, Toxicology, Regulation, Sensory Evaluation

A practical short course will be presented by The Food Protein Research and Development Center at The Texas A&M University System, College Station, Texas, on February 7-11, 1999. Some 30-plus presenters will cover subjects ranging from regulation and labeling issues, component sourcing and processing, and commercialization. To register, call Sefa Koseoglu at 409/845-2749, e-mail: or Carl Vavra at 409/845-2758, e-mail: Or register online at .

RELATED ARTICLE: Food or Supplement…and the Blur Goes On

Innovative manufacturers are increasingly using “structure/function” claims and dietary supplement regulations to market their products. Hain Pure Foods, Uniondale, N.Y., for example, is intending to promote its chicken broth and noodles with echinacea as a dietary supplement. Other DSHEA requirements also appear on the label, such as a Supplement Facts panel and the disclaimer that the FDA has not evaluated the product for its healthfulness and that it “is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” (See photo.)

Other companies are taking a different approach and marketing their products as “functional foods” rather than as dietary supplements. General Nutrition Companies (GNC), Pittsburgh, Pa., is introducing a vanilla-flavored soy drink that promotes its DHA, omega 3-fatty acids and isoflavone content and then makes the relevant structure/function claims that “DHA is vital for a healthy heart and nervous system” and “soy isoflavones provide dietary support for healthy bones.” Omega Tech Inc., Boulder, Colo., is introducing eggs under the Gold Circle Farms brand. The eggs have six times the levels of vitamin E and ten times the levels of DHA omega-3s of regular eggs. The product also makes the structure/function claim that “DHA is vital for a healthy heart and for brain and eye development and function.”

“Our products are considered whole foods rather than supplements and thus fall under FDA guidelines for food labeling,” says a spokesperson with Omega Tech. “Our structure/function claims are substantiated using peer-reviewed scientific literature.”

Johnson & Johnson’s McNeil Consumer Products Co. announced this month the launch of Benecol margarine and salad dressings. To be marketed as dietary supplements, the products contain a plant stanol ester that “promotes healthier lower cholesterol levels.”

“Although functional foods are moving slower in the U.S. than what has been forecast, by 2005 to 2010 the greatest market opportunities will reside in functional foods – not [pill] supplements,” predicts Brian Keating, Sage Group, a Seattle-based market research firm. “Consumers have limited time to understand supplements and basic nutrition, and they have limited budgets. They will generally opt for fortified foods and beverages and a few key supplements to fortify their diets.”

The ongoing evolution of functional foods and supplements will be an exciting area to watch. As this article goes to print, the October 30 Wall Street Journal reports a head-to-head confrontation between Johnson & Johnson and the FDA over the Benecol launch. Stay tuned.

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