Not all scientific studies are equal, argues Ralf Zink, PhD. What separates the leaders from the followers is when companies are willing to go that extra mile and prove that their product in particular — rather than just a generic — is effective and safe
Leaders in functional foods and dietary supplements companies recognize the importance of ?raising the bar? when it comes to scientific standards. But how many of them are actually jumping over the bar? By that I mean, how many of them are jumping in with both feet to make investments in branded science to prove that their products work? The answer is ?not enough.? This unfortunate reality must change if our industry is to grow and prosper.
Coming from Nestle to Cognis Nutrition & Health less than two years ago offers a unique vantage point for me. Traditional food companies are working with ingredients companies like Cognis creating relationships that did not exist even five years ago. So what?s prompting this change?
According to Datamonitor, we are seeing an increasing clash between two food ?mega-trends? — convenience and health. Consumers are still pressed for time, yet 41 per cent of them will change their diet to combat illness.
Foods companies that were once focused on making sure food tasted and looked great must now refocus their energies. In the UK right now, one of the key spotlights is on foods high in salt, while in the US foods loaded with fat and sugar have become the forbidden fruits. The threat of a legislative and consumer backlash against the promotion of unhealthy foods is growing as the focus sharpens on obesity.
So, the healthy functionality of foods has now taken centre stage. And to most food makers, this is new territory. Whereas in the past, suppliers simply supplied ingredients, this is no longer the case. And the new evolution of supplier-manufacturer relationship begins with science. The key questions we are often asked are:
- Does it really work?
- Can you prove it?
- Is it safe?
- Can you convince our customers?
To obtain satisfactory responses to these questions, we suggest that the list be expanded to include those that probe a little deeper. Asking the following questions can help a manufacturer or marketer identify suppliers with credible scientific support necessary in creating successful products:
Is the science branded?
During the evaluation process of selecting health-enhancing ingredients, supporting studies are a major consideration. When a company owns the science, when they have research using their branded ingredient, the answers are clear. In contrast, when the science is ?borrowed,? both suppliers and their customers may be taking a leap of faith. The bottom line is: the application of science should be branded ? not generic — whenever possible.
We realise that sponsoring branded science can be considered risky. That is because not all findings will be entirely positive and there might be some surprises along the way. But isn?t that what science is all about? This is one discipline that does not stand still. We must take knowledge gained from one trial and apply it to the next one.
The media (including Functional Foods & Nutraceuticals) are particularly good at finding those studies that do not follow a trend or may counter a marketing message. We should be prepared to address these inquiries by offering detailed explanations of how the studies were conducted. But not every study will have a perfect outcome and the media must be given sufficient information so they can report the findings in the proper context.
What scientific evidence supports product safety?
Perhaps this area above all others separates the leaders from the followers. Is the supplier?s presentation tailor-made for your company including detailed data relevant to your product?
Is there a pattern of studies to support the product?
We relish fanfare about positive research results. But one good study is even better when backed by a collection of similar findings.
Are the study designs credible?
Analysis of study designs is a critical part of your due diligence. Some key questions to ask include: Was the population studied relevant to your product? Were enough participants followed to make the findings real? Were controls used?
As government dollars become increasingly limited, companies must step up to the plate to provide platforms for scientific discussion. For example, last May, Cognis co-sponsored the largest vitamin E conference held in 15 years. In July, Cognis is co-sponsoring the International Carotenoid Symposium in Edinburgh, Scotland. Both of these events provide scientists from around the world the opportunity to share their research, which stimulates ideas for tomorrow?s innovations.
What support is available in research and marketing?
Science is complex to begin with. Translating research findings into easy-to-understand statements that are punchy yet accurate is often challenging. That is why the roles of marketing and science experts at leading suppliers are becoming increasingly intertwined. Ultimately, the science is valuable if the consumer understands the benefits it creates. If the consumer message is too complicated, no matter how good the science is, the product may be seen as a failure.
Educational programmes are a critical component of our science-based marketing efforts. Reaching out to health care practitioners and retailers is important, as these are the influencers consumers turn to before they buy. The challenge is pinpointing messages each of these target groups will take an interest in, agree with, and then share with their patients or customers.
Are technical experts available to assist with challenges once the ingredients are shipped?
Adding a new health ingredient to a dietary supplement or a food can impact nearly every department in a company. From storage to production to shipping, new challenges arise constantly. And when solutions don?t come quickly, the costs can escalate.
A team of experts is required to help ensure the successful addition of a new health ingredient so it does not adversely affect a food?s taste, texture, colour or mouthfeel. With dietary supplements, there are additional issues to address such as potency and stability.
Does the company have a global network and experience working with regulations?
In addition to having a comprehensive understanding of the research, it is critical to know how the scientific results are perceived by local regulatory authorities. For example, in the US, natural beta-carotene is recognised for its broad health benefits while its use is strictly limited in Europe. Evaluating global opportunities in terms of regulations is an important step and requires the experience of a supplier with experts strategically located to provide ongoing guidance.
Obtaining thorough answers to these questions, conducting your own scientific audit, will contribute to the success of your product. The more comprehensive the response up front, the fewer problems down the road. Manufacturers and suppliers must work together to take their products to the next level. Furthermore, products based on branded science will gain a valuable advantage in our increasingly competitive environment.
Consumer confidence in our products is our ultimate goal, so the burden is on us to provide quality, safe products supported by credible scientific research. Inherent in this responsibility is the opportunity to create new and better foods and dietary supplements to help improve the health of consumers worldwide.