Naturally sourced and sustainably produced nutraceuticals: finding the balance

As demand for food and natural ingredients continues to increase, we spoke to some of the key players from across the industry about the issue of naturally sourced versus sustainably produced products and what the future holds. Steve Osborn, Director at the Aurora Ceres Partnership, David Foreman, Herbal Pharmacist, and Chris Lee, Managing Director, Informa Health & Nutrition, Europe, share their thoughts with Dr Kevin Robinson

Steve Osborn

KSR: Is naturally sourced really sustainable?

Steve Osborn (SO): We need to stop approaching key aspects of food and drink, such as sustainability and health, as purely binary choices. Although naturally sourced can be sustainable, it does not make it de facto sustainable. As an industry, we need to set clear standards and definitions.

We have huge issues to tackle and being honest regarding the true impact of the supply chain has to be the first one we consider. Sustainability is defined as “the capacity to endure” and this should be a principle aim of any part of the food chain. Unfortunately, there are many that see claiming sustainability as a marketing opportunity rather than as a fundamental need; as such, they don’t consider the whole supply chain and the bigger picture.

David Foreman (DF): In some cases, naturally sourced is sustainable; however, this depends on the product or ingredient and each one needs to be considered individually. An example is fish oil versus krill oil. Fish are not a sustainable source of omega-3s whereas krill, and the oil harvesting methods used, are considered to be sustainable. When we get into the plant world, defining the boundaries become more of a challenge.

Chris Lee (CL): Contrary to popular belief, the production of many products, and especially plant-based ones, is often unsustainable. For example, the increase in veganism and vegetarianism has led to a huge rise in demand for soy beans.

This has subsequently led to deforestation as large swathes of land are cleared to make way for soy plantations. As forests are logged and burned, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, which then contributes to climate change. Sustainable farming methods are one way of reducing these products’ impact on the environment and some natural ingredients, such as omega-3 algae, can also be sourced sustainably.

The issue is that natural supply — as well as the land necessary to grow the produce — might not always be sufficient, especially when considering that the world’s growing population will require 56% more food by 2050 compared with in 2010.1

David Foreman

KSR: Can natural ingredients and synthetic counterparts have the same health and wellness benefits?

SO: The debate regarding natural and synthetic is a topic that has been at the forefront of the food and nutrition industry’s concerns for a number of years … and one that’s becoming increasingly more complex.

There is no reason why a natural ingredient would be any different to a synthetically produced alternative from a functionality perspective; ascorbic acid is vitamin C and vice versa. However, the boundaries between what is actually natural are extremely blurred. Take, for example, turmeric (curcumin) and collagen; both are ingredients that have risen to the top in recent years for their health and wellness benefits.

These are both seen as natural ingredients; but, the technology and processing steps, such as extraction, solubilising and stabilising these ingredients into palatable products, are unlikely to be considered natural. As with linking natural sourcing to sustainability, we need to stop thinking of these components in binary terms.

CL: Although manufacturers are able to produce nature-identical ingredients with functional benefits in the lab, the challenge is that many consumers (44%) are wary when it comes to industrially prepared foods.2 We believe there is an educational aspect here; the fact that something is processed doesn’t make it bad for you or unclean. It is this consumer perception of natural being better or healthier that the industry needs to target.

KSR: Is producing such ingredients in a lab more sustainable or the future? What other methods can the industry support?

DF: Lab production should, in theory, be more sustainable than naturally sourcing ingredients, and these methods look to be a major part of our future. We now need to understand how to produce these products with the goal of being truly identical to the ones found in nature. This also applies to other components found in the original organism, such as enzymes and phytochemicals.

SO: Recent developments in fermentation, green chemistry and synthetic biology are allowing access to naturally occurring compounds in abundant and extractable quantities. Whether or not this makes them more sustainable all depends on how sustainability is defined. It should not, as it often is, be used interchangeably with natural.

Using laboratory driven methods for the production of functional materials is a positive step from a sustainability perspective, provided that it does not have a greater negative impact through resource utilisation, etc., as the production of the material is not limited by the availability of the primary source itself.

In this case, it can be considered to be more sustainable, although this may not satisfy the holistically natural agenda. Therefore, the two must be reconciled and not pitched as opposing sides. Calling a fermentation process that has been manipulated using modern science natural is a stretch … but maybe this is an issue with the perception of natural rather than the process itself.

Chris Lee

KSR: How do you think we can find a balance of both?

SO: In the first instance, the issue is the absence of widely accepted definitions and this has been the case for a number of years throughout the food and drink sector. Clean label, natural, sustainable etc. have all lacked a concrete identity, so are open to abuse and misuse. To harmonise this, each product should be considered in terms of the total supply chain and its impact across it.

In reality, it’s almost impossible for any product to claim it is natural. What are widely considered to be natural processes still have some element of intervention. Fermentation, for example, is tightly temperature controlled with specifically harvested yeasts to achieve the desired outcome.

True sustainability would not consume the resource at a rate greater than it’s produced, so it’s hard to see how to the two intersect whilst satisfying growing markets. The balance will only be achieved when the terms natural and sustainable are held as truly underpinning values and not used too easily, or cheaply, as marketing copy.

CL: There is no clear path forward; how to balance the use of naturally sourced and sustainably produced ingredients will be debated for years to come. As an industry, collaboration will be key to ensure that we truly understand the importance of looking beyond terms such as natural and consider the sustainability of products and the entire supply chain.

DF: I believe the balance will find itself, as supply issues and consumer awareness drive the industry of laboratory made to new levels.

References

  1. www.wri.org/blog/2018/12/how-sustainably-feed-10-billion-people-2050-21-charts.
  2. www.nielsen.com/content/dam/corporate/us/en/reports-downloads/2017-reports/nielsen-clean-label-report-aug-2017.pdf.

This article will appear in the May/June issue of Nutraceutical Business Review. To read a previous issue, click here.

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