Dr Stefan Siebrecht, Managing Director at Taiyo, describes the challenging task of developing nutritional concepts that give foods and beverages value-adding, health-promoting benefits
Nutrition-related and lifestyle diseases are on the rise. Given that most people are well aware of the risks, the food industry is doing its part and has committed to reducing the amount of fat, sugar and salt in many products.
As well as complying with upcoming regulatory requirements, the move will help those consumers who are increasingly trying to compensate for their dietary deficits and rebalance their nutrient intake with the help of functional foods and beverages. No longer hidden away on niche shelves, micro- or macronutrient-enriched items with added health benefits have become an integral part of many product ranges.
KSR: Taiyo has been active in the functional ingredient space since 1946. In terms of new product development, how has scientific research evolved?
SS: Scientific research on food and functional nutrients has changed considerably in recent decades and has been subject to various influences, such as the legal prevention of animal experiments in the field of cosmetics.
As a result, more and more companies and consumers are demanding that manufacturers refrain from animal testing or to confirm that no animal tests have been done or will be done in the future.
Unfortunately, it’s still necessary to conduct toxicological studies on animals to investigate the safety of food and nutrients to avoid harming consumers. There’s also a requirement for animal experiments in clinical research to establish the foundations of nutrient therapy for certain diseases.
Furthermore, health claims regulation has led to a decrease in the importance of in vitro and animal studies; today, nutrition studies on humans are regarded as being both important and essential. Many trials are currently being done on healthy people — according to EFSA guidelines and health parameters — to validate and substantiate product-related health claims.
KSR: Since 2006, the EU Health Claims Regulation has regulated the health claims for fortified foods. To what extent does the regulation influence the ingredients sector?
SS: An EFSA Health Claim is a generalised and highly abridged health claim for a particular nutrient or food. Unfortunately, most raw materials have not yet received such a claim and it’s very questionable whether they ever will.
Therefore, companies that have not received a health claim for their products are reliant on other ways to promote them. There are several ways to do this, such as focusing on so-called soft claims and not promoting EFSA-defined effects (such as heart health).
Taiyo's Dr Stefan Siebrecht
There is a wealth of examples and possibilities here for emotional claims, purity claims, bioavailability, quality, origin, biological production methods, sustainability, etc., for advertising purposes. Another option is to mix products or raw materials with other nutrients that have an approved EFSA Health Claims — usually vitamins or minerals — to make piggyback health claims.
However, this leads to more and more products being enriched with vitamins and minerals such as iron, which in the totality of daily consumption can lead to too many vitamins and minerals being ingested.
The Health Claims Regulation was intended to standardise the laws governing the advertising of foodstuffs in Europe and to protect consumers from misleading advertising. Often, however, these approved claims are not helpful at all because they sound very technical and medical … and are rather confusing and incomprehensible to the consumer.
Olive oil, for example, has the health claim: “Protects LDL cholesterol from oxidation.” Such claims are still in need of explanation as the health benefits are not immediately apparent to the consumer. The demand for information has risen sharply in recent years owing to the Internet and the rapid spread and constant availability of knowledge.
Able to reduce post-meal blood glucose levels by 20%, for instance, Sunfiber has been granted a health claim by the Canadian health authorities. It also offers a number of clinically substantiated health benefits for the entire body. When consumed with a meal, for example, it improves the absorption of minerals such as calcium and magnesium.
In addition, the fermentation rate of Sunfiber is very slow, which means that it does not result in painful gas, cramping or discomfort.
KSR: The demand for natural ingredients has been increasing for years. What challenges does this pose and how should the study situation be assessed?
SS: Consumers are increasingly looking for new, holistic, natural and safe ways to prevent and treat diseases … and this is the driving force behind the ever-increasing demand for natural ingredients and plant extracts.
Unfortunately, the amount of space available for cultivation is limited and plants suffer from constantly increasing environmental pollution and the changing climate or climatic fluctuations. This has led to a shortage and rising prices of many ingredients.
At the same time, this market has also become more susceptible to criminal activities. In fact, the counterfeiting of food and plant extracts is already very widespread. Studies by the American Herbal Associations and Newmaster (2013) have shown that about three quarters of all plant extracts sold have been falsified in terms of their quality.
Among the most adulterated foods are Darjeeling tea, matcha tea and olive oil. Among the top 20 most sold plant extracts in America are 16 that are highly counterfeited. The increasing proliferation of counterfeit plant extracts has fatal consequences for the entire market.
They are at best ineffective, but can also contain impurities that are harmful to human health. Studies done with counterfeit plant extracts also produce false results and, in the worst-case scenario, lead to unexpected, surprising and sometimes serious side-effects. The industry would be well advised to carefully check the origin and quality of any procured plant extracts and raw materials.
Ironically, however, profit margins from counterfeiting raw materials or food are extremely high, tracking pressure is low and, in the end, industry and consumers seem to benefit from lower prices. Counterfeit plant extracts and other raw materials destroy the price structure and make it difficult to sell high-quality but more expensive raw materials.
This drop in prices means that there is less and less money available to do studies with high-quality raw materials. Furthermore, many manufacturers of premium raw materials are discontinuing their production and distribution. Every effort must therefore be made to remove counterfeit raw materials from the market.
KSR: Health-conscious consumers want to know what's inside. How do you assess this trend and where will the journey take you?
SS: What’s “in it” refers mostly and primarily to macronutrients — fat and sugar on the negative side and protein and fibre on the positive. More and more health-conscious consumers are able to identify product labels that are obviously intended to mislead them, such as those in which fat is replaced by sugar, fructose is sold as a natural fruit sweetener, etc.
More and more consumers want products that are as close to nature as possible and less and less processed with a lower calorie content. They are also becoming increasingly aware of micronutrients and additives.
A distinction must be made between positive and negative quality parameters. On the one hand, consumers want to know more about which positive substances are contained in a product and exactly how they work. On the other hand, there is a growing awareness of which substances are or could be harmful and therefore undesirable in products.
For example, produced using an extremely gentle process, Taiyo’s SunActive Chia Oil Powder contains a significantly higher yield of omega-3 and ALA compared with competitive products. The self-emulsifying powder disperses completely in cold water and has been specially developed for use in dietary supplements, such as shakes, sticks, sachets and instant beverage supplements.
Consumer demand for new and cleaner foods and dietary supplements has been growing in recent years.
It began with the “bio wave” in the food sector and has now spilt over into food supplements with the “free from” movement. Examples of increasingly undesirable materials are glutamate, titanium dioxide, yeast extract, magnesium stearate and carrageenan, as well as additives that have an E-number.
Some of these free from trends are, however, frequently demonised in sensationalist campaigns … even when there’s no scientific reason to do so. For example, lecithin is a natural emulsifier with an E-number (E322); but, it’s also an important nutrient that plays a critical role in every cell membrane of our body.
The continuous and general portrayal of additives as evil poses the danger that eating disorders will continue to increase and that more and more people will develop orthorexia (the pathological search for healthy food).
Nutrition not only serves to maintain health, but should also be a pleasure; consumers would do well to keep it in proportion and not to auction off individual substances, whether positive or negative, and make their food choices based solely on extremely overvalued individual substances. Nevertheless, these trends (free from, bio, vegan) have led the industry to recognise the opportunities of these market segments and are now beginning to improve food.
However, the consumer must also reward this development by choosing qualitatively better products, even if these can often only be produced and offered at higher prices. In nutrition, as in society as a whole, there is an increasing division between people who can and want to afford high quality food and others who still and increasingly choose the cheapest food.