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Naturally functional vs. fortified foods—experts debate

The hot new trend is consumers clamoring for naturally functional products. Does this spell the end of food science as we know it? 

Nutrition Business Journal Editor-In-Chief Marc Brush and Functional Ingredients Editor-In-Chief Todd Runestad square off over what provides the best value—for consumers and manufacturers alike—when it comes to natural vs. fortified foods.

Todd Runestad: One of the things we’re watching develop is the move toward whole-food nutrition versus hyper-fortified or functional foods. People like technology on their desktop but perhaps they would prefer to not have technology on their tabletop.

Marc, you’re an adherent of what might be called "wholegrarianism"—that naturally nutrient-dense, raw foods, whole-fruit and vegetable extracts are the way consumers are going. Given the recent moves by the European Food Safety Authority essentially banning any nutrition-based health claims (a bit of an overstatement), the question then is: Who needs a health claim when you’ve got fruits and vegetables?

That is, consumers understand the inherent healthiness of fruits and vegetables, so if you can just put them in a convenient and tasty delivery system, you’re on your way. Is that right, Marc?

Marc Brush: I am a proponent of the whole food movement. One of the things it brings into question is the notion to isolate nutrients, boost them, and see if they’re healthy. When we look at the growth going forward, five-year CAGR, natural and organic is close to 10 percent and everything else is 5 percent. So something is going on with consumers.

TR: You might be on to something with the natural innate healthiness vs. science formulated. There’s also the counter-argument that we are still a magic bullet society, still a pill-popping culture. So on the one hand you have people who want baseline healthiness and that’s driving the clean-label movement. Beyond basic nutrition is when the supplement play comes in and where the functional food and beverage aspect theoretically comes in.

MB: The goal for CPG companies playing in the nutrition market is creating functional foods. This can be packaged food that may not be all that healthy for you, with an added healthy ingredient du jour and hope it has an efficacious dose and slap a health claim on it and let consumers dive in.

Where we see the action in the market is inherently functional. It’s food that’s healthy from the start and food that brings that science-driven health-claim stuff without any engineering or tinkering. It’s superfruits or things like chia.

That’s where I think consumers are moving. What springs to mind is colors and flavors—I don’t know if the artificial side will exist in 10 or 20 years. There’s a price-parity issue but why would a consumer revert to a conventional product with a synthetic?

TR: Processors have taught consumers how crackers or beverages are supposed to taste—very sweet. Then someone noticed that those products taste great but are not very nutritious, they’re not actually healthy for consumers.

What hasn’t been answered is whether all those nutrients you put back into that refined product are still there in six months as the product sat on the shelf.

So in the last half-dozen years, we see companies putting extra fiber like resistant starch in products, and people do want fiber. But I think consumers better recognize and reach for ingredients they understand, like pea protein, which also drives the quest for clean label.

MB: The real threat to the supplements and functional foods industry is, ironically, science-driven. Natural resonates better and better to consumers, who think you haven’t tinkered with the food.

TR: I ran into this company, Vitalicious, that has these muffins with only 100 calories per 55-gram servings. On their website they compare these functional muffins to an apple. Apples keep the doctor away, and it doesn’t get healthier than that unless your name is Eve.

But these muffins have half the sugars of an apple, fewer carbohydrates, and they’ve fortified it with 50 percent of the RDA of the full range of letter vitamins, versus apples that have a little bit of vitamin C and not much else.

They’ve formulated this product with less sugar, more nutrients, berries, whole grains, fiber, protein, and it tastes better than an apple and you know you’re getting good nutrition through this highly engineered muffin.

MB: This is a great case study, the muffin vs. the apple. This muffin could be a healthier product. But the science of isolating nutrients and assuming it’s going to directly lead to a health outcome is unsettled. Consumers understand the apple. They may buy the muffin because it’s convenient.

It reminds me of the Odwalla drinks with the side panel that lists all the fruits and vegetables and how much of that fruit is in the container—half a banana, seven berries, a quarter of an apple. Juice is marketed to be very clean.

Now some companies out there are sticking the ingredients right on the front of the bottle—kale, spinach, strawberries, lemon, things like that, and that’s it. You know what you’re getting, even though there’s maybe no vitamin C in it.

In some respects it’s anti-functional but it’s also very naturally functional. Generationally, I’d bet on naturally functional.

TR: The nutrition science aspect is that if you want an efficacious dose of an ingredient, take a supplement. It’s all well and good to have DHA milk that has 32 mg of DHA in it, and you put 32 mg here, 50 mg in a piece of bread, and it accumulates over the day. But if you have rheumatoid arthritis, you’ll need 8 or 9 grams a day.

MB: Let food be food and medicine be medicine. When we look at the functional industry, 60 percent of it is energy beverages. And beyond that it’s really omega-3s and probiotics. There are now whole-food supplements, even that is a little bit subversive to the functional isolates.

TR: That goes with the recent studies showing calcium in foods are healthy but isolated calcium-only supplements are not. You need to build a more full-spectrum pill with phosphorus and magnesium and vitamin D and K2. That might be the answer to your earlier point that we don’t know the effects of isolates.

MB: We need to get smarter about science. I still think we’re in this data-dump mode where we don’t know enough but it would be a shame if we stopped trying to figure it out. Bodies work as a system so if you isolate a piece you’re only going to get so far. At times there are windows of efficacy—a smaller dose of a nutrient may quell inflammation but a larger dose may trigger it.

TR: Let’s wrap up here. Lightning round. Gatorade or water?

MB: Water is free. I drink more water.

TR: Fruit cup or multivitamin?

MB: I eat a lot of fruit.

TR: Muffin or an apple?

MB: I like that muffin. I’m going to check out that muffin.


Whose side are you on?

Here's what industry sources have to say about the natural vs. functional debate. 

“We’ll see less smoke and mirrors and functional this and functional that and a movement to clean, simple ingredient statements with really good taste.” —Neal Gottlieb, founding Twin, Three Twins Ice Cream

“To continue to grow the business, it’s going to be more benefit-driven so instead of natural or organic, consumers are going to buy products because it makes them smarter or makes their heart stronger or helps them lose weight or helps them with their circulatory system. It’s going to be much more feature- and benefit-driven to really bring the mainstream in.”—Gregg Bagni, White Road Investments

“Consumers want their foods and beverages to be pure, simple and natural, and that includes the ingredients that go into them.” —Bob McNabb, business director, Natural Marketing Institute

65 percent of adults are making a strong/some effort to eat more fortified foods. 32 percent are making a strong effort to eat more foods and drinks that are naturally rich in nutrients. —MSI data from 2010


Whose side are you on: naturally functional or fortified foods? Share in the comments.

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