The shifting sands of functional platforms

Botanicals are the rising stars of digestive health, inflammation and sleep applications

Functional foods were initially developed and marketed as dietary supplement competitors — an intersection between food and supplements.

They contained specific nutrients for particular health benefits, such as glucosamine for inflammation.

This angle was not successful for numerous reasons; it was too niche (the demographic target was too specific) and too unfamiliar (consumers weren’t ready to accept a food and supplement combination). And, so, dietary supplements still dominated the market.

A smoother transition to facilitate the provision of health benefits through food was needed, a broader concept that attracted a wide range of consumers. This is where the functional foods market is presently at — foods that contain natural, inherently healthy ingredients that are more suitable to specific applications, such as high protein nutrition bars and high fibre breads.

The functional foods market is estimated to reach $75.5 billion in sales by 2020. It continues to rise at a steady pace because of the shift from fortification with isolated nutrients to the incorporation of ingredients that inherently contain the desired functionality and/or nutrient.

Functional products featuring botanicals have experienced tremendous growth and are forecasted to keep doing so because of the increased consumer awareness of overall health and wellness, how food and beverage affect it, and the various trends that have developed because of this awareness.

Trends in consumer food spend include ingredients that are transparent — where they’re grown, how they’re grown, etc. — plants such as spirulina and vegetables including broccoli, kale and spinach; and the rise in flexitarianism — a primarily plant-based diet with meat consumption only once a week.

Most importantly, the mainstream trend of clean label has influenced consumer interest in botanical ingredients.

Clean label means few, free-from and minimally processed ingredients as well as natural alternatives to artificial colours, flavours and preservatives. In short, consumers are seeking short, recognisable ingredient lists … and botanicals are able to provide that clean, free-from and natural appeal.

These trends, along with the blurring of food and supplements, have given rise to several functional platforms. Most notably are digestive health, inflammation and sleep.

Although probiotics is the rising star in the US digestive health market, predicted to attain gains at 6.5% CAGR and be worth $6.5 billion by 2023, we are also seeing a rise in tried and true botanicals that are traditionally known for their digestive health benefits, such as fibre-rich botanicals and fennel seed.

The same can be said for inflammation and sleep. Ginger and turmeric are increasingly being utilised instead of glucosamine and chamomile, and valerian instead of melatonin.

For the functional platforms that were already popular, the types of ingredients that are being sought after are changing. Even the functional food segment that emphasises technologically enhanced ingredients (also the segment with the largest market share), sports nutrition, has been influenced by this back-to-basics approach to ingredient decks.

Plant-based sports nutrition

As sports nutrition products appeal beyond extreme athletes and into your everyday average Joe (or Julie), we are seeing more plant-based proteins, beetroot for increased nitric oxide production and turmeric for its anti-inflammatory properties becoming trending sports nutrition ingredients.

Another popular functional platform experiencing change is energy. We are seeing more consumers seeking ingredients with naturally occurring caffeine compared with straight caffeine, such as guayusa and yerba mate.

Adaptogens, such as ashwagandha, ginseng, and maca, are also increasingly being incorporated into energy products. Adaptogens are traditionally referred to as tonics or rejuvenators and enable the body to adapt to both mental and physical stress.

Booming beverages

As the ingredient options for these and other functional platforms become more robust, so do the options for delivery format. Supplements were traditionally the main delivery vehicle, but as pill fatigue becomes more commonplace, beverages are rapidly taking their place.

Beverages provide a convenient, on-the-go format for consumers who are trying to avoid the ingestion of additional supplements. We are also seeing more novel delivery formats beyond beverages increasingly pop up in the market.

For example, energy drinks with guarana for its natural source of caffeine, ginger ale with green tea for its natural source of polyphenols, pumpkin seed protein nutritional bars, kale chips and psyllium fibre cereals, just to name a few.

Today, the prevalence of functional products with botanical ingredients to clean up their label is noticeable.

Incorporating botanicals to your foods and beverages will not only add to your bottom line, it will also fulfil the needs of today’s consumers — baby boomers, Gen X, millennials — for clean label functional foods and beverages and will only continue to grow with the next generation of consumers.

To meet the current as well as future demands for functional foods, formulators need to continually incorporate creative, inherently healthy botanical ingredients.

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