A clearer future for food supplements

From free-from messages to on-pack health claims, today’s consumers have high expectations from food labels

The past decade has seen a steady growth in demand for natural, minimally processed foods with simple ingredient lists, and the clean label trend now also extends into the marketing of food supplements. Artificial colours and flavours, preservatives, e-numbers and pesticides all have negative connotations for shoppers and manufacturers are under pressure to remove such components from products.

To keep the ingredient list as short as possible, formulators can also limit the use of excipients and binders with no nutritional value. Clean label innovation is closely linked to other established and growing industry trends, such as the rising popularity of vegetarian and vegan products.

In Italy, for example, almost 45% of supplement users say that a vegetarian message is important when making a purchasing decision. These claims, alongside a natural or organic positioning, are increasingly seen as part of the overall clean label movement. As positive attributes, they can be proactively communicated on pack to create a more compelling positioning.

There is no fixed definition of clean label and, indeed, the concept continues to evolve in line with changing consumer attitudes and behaviour. Increased connectivity and the rise of social media mean that people now have access to more information about the food industry than ever before. However, product recalls and allergy scares have resulted in high levels of mistrust and so-called factory fear.

Consumers want to know what they are eating and a comprehensive ingredient list alone is no longer enough. Shoppers now look for details about product and ingredient origins, environmental impact and the location and method of production. The growing need for full transparency across the supply chain has been termed the ‘clear’ label trend by Innova Market Insights. This presents exciting opportunities for food supplement suppliers to create differentiated products and satisfy the complex needs of consumers in mature markets, such as Western Europe.

The clean label promise

The significance of clean label to the global food supplements industry is strongly evidenced by market data from multiple sources. Although the number of clean label launches continues to grow, the statistics do reveal regional variations. It is important for manufacturers to understand how preferences differ from country to country, so that they can create products that resonate with the target consumer.

According to Mintel, 54% of all new food supplements launched between 2013–2015 globally carried a natural claim of some description. Gluten-free, vegan and organic are now among the most popular platforms from which to market vitamin and mineral supplements in the European Union (EU). In 2015, 30% of all new product launches in the EU featured low/no/reduced allergen claims and one out of every ten products carried a vegan positioning.

GMO-free is currently much more prominent in the United States, whereas organic prevails in the EU. There are, however, some indications that GMO-free claims are set to start appearing more frequently on European products, as an ‘extra’ free from guarantee.

As the industry adapts to meet the more holistic requirements of clear label, product safety, traceability and provenance all become even more critical to manufacturers if they are to achieve commercial success. In fact, a recent online survey commissioned by Capsugel and conducted by the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) found that product safety is already the top concern for supplement users in Europe.

There is no fixed definition of clean label and, indeed, the concept continues to evolve in line with changing consumer attitudes and behaviour

As well as transparency regarding the origin and sourcing of both ingredients and excipients, there is also increased interest in the manufacturing location and environment. Local production boosts consumer appeal and brand owners may choose to highlight if a supplement product is made in Europe, for example.

The processing technique itself is also under scrutiny as part of the ‘raw’ trend, which refers to the adoption of a diet in which an individual only eats unprocessed foods. The supplement industry can meet the needs of such consumers by making use of cold-pressing techniques and providing evidence that the product has been minimally processed to the highest quality standards.

According to Mintel, the past 2 years have seen a 200% rise in the number of products featuring a raw claim. The trend is gaining particular traction among millennials, who have different preferences to their parents. Whereas older generations are satisfied with more traditional free-from claims, younger people are looking for guarantees beyond the product ingredients themselves.

Creating a clear proposition

Supplement suppliers make a series of choices during the product development process that ultimately affects the final product label. If manufacturers are to fully capitalize on the new market opportunities created by the clear label trend, then every step must be carefully considered within the context of the latest consumer preferences. The starting point is typically sourcing the ingredients that will form part of a simple and clean formulation.

However, selecting the most appropriate dosage form is also important to both reduce the number of excipients, including binders, fillers and lubricants, and maintain an overall clean label product concept. With an increased focus on production techniques and location, the manufacturing process itself also needs to be reviewed from the viewpoint of the more discerning shopper and what they’d expect to see on pack.

Finally, regulatory compliance and third-party certifications must be sought to effectively market clean label supplements. It is important that the benefits of the finished product are communicated using language that resonates with the target audience. Of course, there must be a strong commercial rationale behind the decision to bring any new product to market. A clear label is an opportunity to create differentiated products and appeal to specific consumer segments.

Technological advances

In recent years, there have been a number of innovations in the latest delivery technologies and excipients that support a clean label proposition. Seen as familiar, convenient and easy-to-swallow, capsules remain one of the most popular formats across the supplements category as a whole.

Capsules also make it straightforward for manufacturers to effectively deliver clean label supplements, as there is no coating step required for taste masking and they facilitate a significant reduction in the use of excipients in formulations. This helps to explain why, in 2014, capsules were the chosen dosage format for a third of the new clean label food supplement products launched in Europe.

Traditionally, capsules have been made using gelatin. For manufacturers looking to create vegetarian and vegan products as part of the clean label trend, there are also plant-derived capsules available. For example, Capsugel offers a wide range of vegetarian capsules that ensure the optimal performance of safe and effective clean label food supplements.

The portfolio is primarily produced using plant-based hypromellose (HPMC) or pullulan formulations and facilitates free-from claims, such as gluten-free and no allergens, as well as creating opportunities to market supplements on vegetarian, vegan or organic platforms.

Capsugel’s vegetarian capsules also deliver many advantages that can be leveraged in product communications to build additional trust with consumers as part of the clear label trend. This includes full transparency on origin and sourcing, localisation of production in Europe, high quality, environmentally friendly manufacturing processes and guaranteed product safety.

Advances in encapsulation technologies are also creating new opportunities to extend the clear label trend into new product applications, in line with consumer preferences. A good example is the sports nutrition space, wherein there have recently been a number of product launches featuring vegetarian and clean label claims. This has partly been driven by brands using more sophisticated clean concepts to distance themselves from concerns about misuse that have been raised in the mainstream media.

Liquid-filled capsules are commonly used for the encapsulation of liquid and semi-solid products, such as fish oils. Capsugel’s vegetarian Licaps provide a clean label solution that also delivers the required functionality as a safe and tight container for liquids and oils, as well as being vegetarian and vegan certified and allowing an organic labelling on the final product.

The Licaps dosage form is particularly well suited for vegetarian oils that are on the rise as an alternative to traditional omega-3 fish oils. Plant-based extracts such as Ahiflower oil also offer interesting opportunities to build full vegetarian or vegan product lines.

With stricter scrutiny of on-pack health claims and the need to rebuild consumer trusts in the wake of high profile contamination scandals, clean label is now firmly established as one of the most influential trends in food supplements. However, consumer expectations now go beyond the on-pack ingredient listing to include a diverse set of demands.

The clear label trend has put traceability, sustainability and provenance under the spotlight. Product safety is also critical in building trust. Capsugel’s extensive portfolio of vegetarian capsules puts supplement suppliers in a strong position to achieve such a positioning. For example, all of its capsules are manufactured in pharma-grade environments that are certified by EXCiPACT, and guaranteed without treatment or radiation. Capsugel also works to ensure a reduced environmental footprint and energy consumption.