Editorial: Perspectives from Israel and Beyond

I spent the past two weeks in Israel, and as I crossed the country like a checkerboard, meeting with that country’s ingredient and food processing leaders, could not help but reflect on a few recent developments, their global implications, new revelations in the world of production technology, and the fundamental fact that a consumer…is a consumer….anywhere.

First of all, the opportunity to consume, at most markets, freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, is a wonderful experience. I guess I’d consider myself an educated consumer, and for many conversations, almost know or expect too much. I was able though, as I consumed the prototypical ‘Mediterranean diet’, to distance myself to some extent from my hyper-analytical self, and become almost a ‘typical consumer’, and really tried to put on the typical consumer hat for most of my interactions.

In the small local markets that I was visiting, they weren’t talking about superfruits and antioxidants, they were talking about vitamin C and health. This fact held true from the boy squeezing the pomegranate itself to the people in cafes and restaurants. The association between fruits and vegetable and wellness or health is not only well understood, it is pretty much universally accepted. And this concept of inherent health benefit – it’s got to be good for you – is the driver for much of the fortified or functional food category, and becomes the proving ground for many new supplement ingredients.

So as I wandered from kibbutz to kibbutz, from food ingredient operation to operation, I’d find myself getting involved in dialogue such as the role of these ingredients in the food/health continuum, and in fact, even discussions about the food versus supplement decisions being made by target sections of the population. These are the same discussions happening in North America, the issues are on the minds of nutritionists, dieticians and regulators the world over – they are universal.

One of my hosts queried what should she really give her child given that the child was already eating a great, balanced diet, with lots of fruit and vegetables? We had just come from a company providing children’s vitamins micro-encapsulated with chocolate and other sweet flavors. Her concern was not necessarily from an efficacy standpoint, it was more from a practical delivery standpoint. Were sweets the best delivery vehicle for vitamins and what association would this create for her kid? We all know that taste is king, especially for kids. Her conundrum, made more interesting by the relatively balanced native diet, is very real. Incidentally, as was made perfectly clear in a brief supermarket tour, fortification, especially in the dairy category, is thriving in Israel, and the rate of new product or new concept introduction in this area appears to be at an accelerated pace relative to just about any other country in the world. So this real consumer issue, absolute need and delivery format for her children, is a real concern – and quite universal at that. Other discussions I was involved in included caring for aging populations, lack of convenience of many supplement delivery forms – the type of conversation one could have at any café or mall, anywhere in the world.

And then the conversation would ultimately shift to business climate. No country in the world is immune to the current financial uncertainty or crisis. While some will feel it more than others, consumer and business behaviors are changing. Israel is no exception, where the world news is being watched carefully, and shrewder buying decisions are being made on a daily basis. The organic premium is certainly harder to justify, and the concept of ‘switching down’ appears to be beginning to take hold there, in the same way in which we’re hearing stories from elsewhere in the world.

When I first left for Israel, industry was in the midst of responding to yet another negative study result, this time for the herb ginkgo biloba. And for the past several months, journal after journal seems intent on discrediting the heart of the industry, vitamin supplementation, at least when measured against disease prevention. At worst one can argue unfair or unrealistic expectations, as health maintenance is the professed intent of vitamins, although much tougher obviously to measure.

Perhaps it’s interesting to note that the rash of negative press we seem to be feeling recently, did not seem to have an effect on the consumers I encountered. One reason for this might be the fact that they represent one of the two consumer extremes in our marketplace. The first is the supplement supporter who will consume regardless of the latest negative study. This consumer knows enough to fundamentally discredit the negative studies, knowing in their hearts that the choices they make for personal wellbeing (and health maintenance) make sense. On the other extreme is the consumer that does not believe in supplementation (or fortification) at all. In both of these cases, negative studies, and the trumpeting of these results most likely do not impact consumer behavior.

At risk however is the targeted middle ground consumer that will be increasingly important to industry in the tough economic times ahead. This is the consumer that has now stopped taking Vitamin E, and may currently be skeptical about soy and other recent victims of negative or non-supporting science.

Current journalism, it appears, seems intent on eliminating the continuum of science - the fact that each new study pushes the forefront of knowledge, based on a platform of work that has come before. In fact, in many cases, each new study is designed to trump all previous research. The vulnerable middle consumer gets confused and ultimately paralyzed – in Israel or elsewhere.

Many of the companies I spoke with in Israel have ongoing research activities planned, and appear to have practical expectations and a highly evolved strategy for ongoing product and concept development. Bioavailability and actual in vivo fate seems to be under serious investigation, and while likely not going to lead to a slew of innovative ingredients, should ultimately produce either more efficacious or at least ‘predicted’ efficacious materials both of which cannot hurt consumer and medical community confidence.

I guess to conclude this week’s musings, I’m struck by the fact that the issues and considerations remain the same as businesses or consumers, no matter where you are in the world.

Some of my other observations at 10,000 feet:

It’s all about water
Controlling scarce production resources has been the key to agriculture throughout human history. In the Middle East, (just as we’re currently finding out in other regions) it’s always been about water. Irrigation, conservation and process management from an understanding of this resource has led to technical innovation in Israel.

Production Control as a Part of Quality Management
Control of production parameters is critical and should be the cost of entry no matter how high tech an operation is. This was evident on our tours over the past week at facility after facility, whether the company was making phospholipids for the highest supplement use or simply drying spices for bulk food production. In this aspect, the companies we visited absolutely excelled.

For any company to not have control of critical production components (and fundamentally to have evaluated where potential issues lie) is inexcusable. Whether the QC technology involves scanning to detect and eliminate color mismatches, SPC or other technology to ensure consistent production, temperature, flow and appropriate measurements to eliminate variability doesn’t matter. Companies should not be doing business with organizations that cannot demonstrate consistent control of their production environments. This goes for primary manufacturers and even mere distributors.

See if FDA thinks any differently……..

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