Mainstream Consumers Seek Healthful Ingredients

Consumers experiencing those aches and pains of natural aging understand the food-health connection while media and government initiatives increase focus on the food-health relationship.

By Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., Ingredients Editor

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American consumers, more selective than ever of processed foods, are reviewing food ingredients more conscientiously with health on the mind. Health obviously drives consumer motivation. There has been a big increase in health and nutrition messages reaching consumers ever since the government has allowed more health-related claims on food packaging.

Mega brands, such as General Mills and PepsiCo, have adopted health as the new big marketing message and their buy-in is compelling others to produce healthier foods. Formulators are substituting or introducing healthier alternatives to existing product lines and ingredient vendors are supporting them with evidence-based knowledge. Such knowledge is helping create new foods — more effective foods for overall health, healthy digestion, cardiovascular health, antioxidant and immune support, healthy glucose levels, weight control and energy.

Whole grains, antioxidants & soy

That whole grains figure large in this health movement is no surprise, given the “whole grain agenda” of the big cereal-based brands. Special interest organizations, trying to recover from the Atkins onslaught last year, are taking advantage of the growing health awareness from the new dietary guidelines (see www.mypyramid.gov). Surveys show consumers equate whole grains with fiber, and the notion that daily dietary fiber is important is now set among adults, while companies have helped by making daily consumption of whole grains more convenient.

High intensity sweeteners and high-performance processing aids, such as emulsifiers and hydrocolloids, are enabling manufacturers to produce rich tasting and appealing whole-grain foods unlike the dry, bland fiber-rich processed foods of the past.

Antioxidants owe their popularity to two factors: Consumers have been extensively educated to the healthful effects of individual antioxidants, and advances in processing technologies made it possible for such ingredients as green tea catechols and omega-3 fatty acids from fish to appear innocuously and effectively in foods and beverages already popular with consumers.

Soy, long recognized for health, has benefited from advances in processing and negative-flavor masking technologies. Focused consumer education and strategic marketing (such as placing soy milk in refrigerated dairy cases) — not to mention increased familiarity due to growing populations of traditional soy eaters — created wide varieties of popular soy products, driving soy consumption skyward.

Women helped tremendously. Prompted by unique health benefits of soy isoflavones for females, these decision makers helped soy products become part of the American family’s daily diet.

Surveying the scene

A December 2004 consumer survey by the Grocery Manufacturers of America, (www.gmabrands.com), Washington, reported that whole, unrefined grains topped consumer list of recognized healthful ingredients, and fiber was a top choice with 66 percent of respondents. “Consumers are applying their knowledge about nutrition to choose foods and beverages that meet their health goals,” notes Alison Kretser, senior director of scientific and nutrition policy for the organization.

The Nutrition Business Journal reported foods with healthful ingredients to be growing at a healthy annual rate of 8-10 percent for six years now. Productscan Online, Naples, N.Y. (www.productscan.com) noted that new fiber-enriched product introductions in North America, stagnant at approximately 2.5 percent since 2000, nearly doubled to 4.2 percent in 2004.

Ironically, just when consumers are beginning to connect food with nutrition and health, there is also increasing prevalence of obesity and other chronic diseases. The future of food is clearly in health and nutrition and consumer education.

According to NPD Food World, Port Washington, N.Y., (www.npd.com) the percentage of restaurant orders that included French fries was highest in 1997 (27.2 per cent) and was as low as 23 percent in 2004. The American per-capita consumption of carbonated soft drinks is in its sixth consecutive year of decline. The future of food is in health.

Whole grains & dietary fiber

Whole grain foods and high-fiber formulations are generally more expensive to produce because of ingredient costs and additional processing times. High-speed manufacturing of whole-grain formulations is tricky because fibers, whole grains, nuts and seeds place great demands on the gluten network of the bakery product. These ingredients produce sticky or bucky (tough) doughs because they hold less water and consequently slow down production lines. Production is also slowed by granular inclusions which interfere with the crevices of manufacturing lines designed for smooth dough products. Additionally, high-fiber formulations yield lower volume and troublesome textural quality.

Small companies, such as artisanal bakery Companion Baking, St. Louis, (www.companionbaking.com) are leading the way with innovative incorporation of healthful ingredients and so are rapidly capturing consumer loyalty. “Bread sales to grocery stores have clearly shifted towards whole grains and artisanal breads,” says Companion owner Josh Allen. The return to traditional, hand-made whole grain products has served Companion well. By limiting automation, such smaller bakeries can produce high-quality breads in retail brand and store bakery formats. Consumers willingly purchase them despite an extra dollar or two premium.

Multi-national bakeries are not far behind. George Weston Bakeries, Totowa, N.J. (www.gwbakeries.com) collaborated with Kellogg to launch high-fiber breads – All Bran Breakfast Loaf with 9 g fiber per serving and Two Scoops Raisin Bran Whole Wheat Breakfast Bread with 7 g of fiber.

Ingredient solutions

A number of ingredient solutions make such products possible. One approach is to strengthen the gluten network for the dough to support additional fiber and other inclusions and still produce high-volume products. Panodan Datem, from Danisco, New Century, Kan., (www.danisco.com) interacts with the gluten proteins to strengthen and stabilize dough during processing, proofing and baking. It is particularly suitable for dense artisan breads with high amounts of whole grains.

Another solution is to minimize the effect of fiber on gluten development. This may be done by solubilizing added fiber with xylanase. Grindamyl PowerBake, also from Danisco, is the only commercially available xylanase not inhibited by proteins in wheat and other cereal grains.

Yet another approach is to boost fiber content with specialty fibers that do not affect the final product negatively, as whole grains do. Hi-maize, a resistant starch from National Starch Food Innovation (www.foodinnovation.com), Bridgewater, N.J. According to Rhonda Witwer, nutrition business development manager, Hi-maize has such whiteness and clean taste that as much as 2.5 g fiber may be incorporated into a single serving of white bread without perceptible changes in product texture or taste. As a bonus, Hi-Maize substitution of flour and other rapidly digested carbohydrates also lowers glycemic response, aids healthy digestion and potentially helps minimize the risk of chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity and cancer.

Antioxidants and omega-3s

Foods containing antioxidants increased by 21 percent since 2002. Although consumers have long recognized the health power of antioxidants, success incorporating them into foods has been slow as they are difficult to stabilize and preserve bioavailability. Antioxidants also tend to be astringent and often have pronounced undesirable flavor. Recently, encapsulation and masking technologies changed this.

Flavonoids, a class of antioxidants particularly rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, cocoa and even red wine are easily destroyed during processing. Cocoa has one of the highest concentrations of flavonoids, but when expressed as mg per serving of the food, apples and prunes show up very well.

Clever formulation and advances in acidity masking techniques have helped Azuca, Calif.-based Naked Juice (www.nakedjuice.com) bottle significant amounts of rainforest palm fruit açaí (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) which packs 50 percent more antioxidant vitamins A and C punch than pomegranate, contains omega fatty acids, vitamin E, amino acids and calcium. Flash pasteurization allows Los Angeles, Calif., based juice processor Bossa Nova to pack and preserve the omega-3, 6 and 9 components of açaí in Viva Acai MegaFruit beverage.

So-hot soy

According to ACNielsen’s executive news report, "What’s Hot Around the Globe – Insights on Growth in Food and Beverages 2004," soy-based drink consumption rose by 31 percent — one of seven categories that experienced double-digit revenue growth in 2004. “Consumers are concerned about diet and health, particularly with all of the media attention on obesity and diabetes,” says Jane Perrin, ACNielsen global services managing director and author of the report explains. “Food and beverage companies that develop healthy products which also meet consumer demand for good taste and convenience will find a receptive market for these products.”

Business Communications Company (www.mindbranch.com) projects overall U.S. market for soy-containing foods will reach $202 billion in 2008 (average annual growth rate of 1.5% from $188 billion in 2003). Soy ingredients are projected to reach sales of $5.9 billion in 2008.

Novel soy ingredients are helping consumers discover that good nutrition and taste need not be mutually exclusive. Popular items such as Silk Chocolate, by White Wave (www.whitewave.com), Boulder, Col., and Soy Delicious, by Turtle Mountain (www.turtlemountain.com), Eugene, Ore., have gained from recent advances in soy processing and flavor technologies.

Soy Supreme Kreme, a high-fat soy-milk powder from Sunrich, Hope, Minn., (www.sunrich.com) — a bland, light-colored shelf-stable whole-soy powder — is replacing the less-nutritious fractionalized soy oil in dessert applications. At 6.25 g of soy protein per serving, these products qualify for FDA’s cardiovascular health claim.

White Wave Silk Chocolate soy milk attained annual retail sales of $13 million (ending April, 2005), making it the top-selling beverage in the entire chocolate milk category (Information Resources Inc.(www.infores.com), Chicago.). Similarly, Turtle Mountain’s Soy Delicious line of frozen desserts eclipsed sales of conventional desserts in certain categories.

According to SPINS (www.spins.com), about 46 percent of the frozen dessert market now consists of nondairy items, largely perceived as “better for you” than traditional products. With 15 mg of isoflavones per serving and ingredients such as inulin and erythritol (a natural sweetener), Soy Delicious desserts are health promoting and contain 37 percent fewer calories than regular ice cream. Another soy ingredient gaining prominence is NutriSoy from ADM (www.admworld.com), Decatur, Ill. NutriSoy is prominently displayed on packaging of Boca Foods (www.bocafoods.com), Madison, Wis.

Solae, Fort Wayne, Ind., a pioneer in the branded soy ingredient arena, is now awaiting FDA decision on a new cancer health claim for soy. The company’s petition consists of a comprehensive evaluation of 58 scientific studies supporting the relationship between the consumption of soy protein-based foods and the reduced risk of developing breast, prostate or colon cancer. (Note: Soy’s heart health claim approval spurred the development of more than 2,000 new products containing soy protein.) Solae’s success is largely the identification and development of flavor modifiers to improve the taste of soy protein.

On the horizon

A development that could signal a new trend is the increased demand for testing the Glycemic Index (GI) of foods – a reflection of the growing use of GI as a tool not just for managing diabetes but also weight and general health.

The GI system classifies foods by their rate of digestion of carbohydrates and level of blood sugar rise following consumption of a carbohydrate food. High GI foods such as white bread and candy cause rapid and large increases in blood sugar levels while low GI foods such as pasta are digested more slowly and therefore cause a moderately lower change in the level of blood sugar.

Clinical studies linked some high GI foods to increased risk of heart disease and diabetes and shown low GI foods to be helpful in managing Type 2 diabetes. However, it must be noted GI is a measure of a reaction, not a condition.

The growing realization of consumers of the value of avoiding rapidly digested carbohydrates will mean even more popularity for healthful ingredients such as whole grains, fiber, resistant starches and soy proteins as well as processing ingredients, such as hydrocolloids and emulsifiers. All help reduce the digestion rate of foods containing them.

As science reveals more about the intrinsic health benefits of everyday foods, healthful ingredients are no longer a niche. By adopting healthier foods, consumers have made intrinsic health become more integral to the food industry. Ingredient vendors are growing their stable of healthful ingredients to help processors deliver value to consumers.

While food processors revamp their product portfolio and carefully pace their efforts to make mainstream foods healthier, one thing is clear: Health is the future of food and healthful ingredients are going to be powerful market drivers for a long time.

NOTE TO MARKETING: UNDERSTANDING CONSUMER NEEDS

Commercialization of healthful foods is more than science communications. It requires an understanding of market and consumer needs. Ocean Nutrition and National Starch are examples of science-based vendors who successfully packaged their findings and technological capabilities. Their commercialization partners the manufacturers, could thus successfully launch their healthful lines.

Consumer dynamics is vital to the product design and development. “Relevance to need and context of explains why consumers easily reach for dairy products for calcium, and for citrus products for vitamin C but cannot seem to connect with vitamin E, despite its wild success in topical applications and dietary supplements,” says Linda Gilbert, president of Health Focus International (www.healthfocus.net), St. Petersburg, Fla. “Ingredients and benefits must make sense. If consumers clearly see the ingredient adds value, they will have a compelling reason to purchase and consume it.”

Clearly convey value proposition

Efficacy and success of a healthful ingredient does not necessarily translate into success for manufacturers of finished products. Science-based evidence does not always create value in the consumer’s mind – as illustrated by the story of fish oils.

Consumers have high awareness of omega 3 fatty acids, but few understand the health benefits of the different types. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) from fish oil are far more effective forms of omega 3s, but consumers cannot differentiate them from the cheaper and lower-efficacy plant-derived counterparts. Some food companies use the generic and more popular label ‘omega 3’ instead of ‘DHA’ (with proven greater efficacy).

Mega brands, such as Unilever, are taking baby steps to educate consumers about omega 3s. The company fortifies its Flora brand of spreads with omega 3 from flax seed, despite limited evidence of heart health benefits compared to the marine-sourced substance.

Food manufacturers and retailers that assume the roles of guide and educator through the thicket of information confusing consumers will inevitably direct shoppers to their own offerings and will probably reap first-mover advantage by establishing the gold standard for those products.

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