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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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.


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 (, 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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