Week in Review - The Search for Healthy Alternatives

By Len Monheit
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You can’t help but feel the increase in intensity.

Whether you attended IFT or the Newport Summit last week, or whether you’re keeping track of issues through trade associations or the mainstream media, it’s difficult to avoid the debates raging over supplement regulation (S.722), corporate responsibility regarding ephedra including subpoenas and lawsuits, or the increased focus on nutrition as governments struggle to cope with growing obesity levels in the population, with resulting impact on already high health care costs.

At both of this past week’s events, nutrition and products to provide better nutritional choices were on center stage. In fact, at this year’s IFT, unlike the previous year, food companies committed to providing more nutritional value in their products, whether this would involve the elimination of trans fats or the introduction of nutritional ingredients, in many cases provided by the same industry leaders we would typically see on a SupplySide show floor. At the Newport Summit, the overlap of food and supplement sectors was quite evident and the presence of many ingredient suppliers suggests that they too see an emerging opportunity.

Last Saturday evening, I sat with thousands in the audience in Chicago as US Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson spoke to the Institute of Food Technologists, commending them on their actions to support and ensure food safety and imploring them to work with him to make food safety a national priority and to attack the obesity epidemic facing North American society.

It is apparent that while the bulk of both efforts will fall on major corporations in the mainstream food industry, a critical role needs to be played by smaller companies, especially those supplying nutritional ingredients, in addition to international companies seeking to be involved long-term in the US. From the 2002 Food Safety and Bioterror legislation to the removal of trans fats from food to the ability to make qualified health claims on food products, there is a movement afoot which could validate the concept of nutritional ingredients and functional foods, forcing fence-sitters to commit and strengthen value chain relationships at the same time.

Here’s my thought process:

Last year at IFT, companies on the show floor were exploring natural foods and ingredients – without commitment. A remote dark corner of many booths displayed the organization’s interest in the concept and that was about the extent of it. This year though, the commitment was evident, the nutritional ingredient companies on the show floor had high level main player interest and the ‘buzz’ was there.

Nay-sayers will state that qualified health claim on foods represent another blow to the supplement industry, especially since so many groups and associations are fundamentally opposed to the principle of supplementation. They may point to the fact that false, outrageous and misleading claims will make a shambles of fragile credibility and the present situation, where legitimate products become tainted by shoddy and unsupported and misleading marketing programs will go from bad to worse.

My logic suggests that provided a good system for claim evaluation is in place (with appropriate levels of supporting science) , then at the ‘very’ least, focus on the nutritional properties of foods will go up, and in fact, this is one of the cornerstones of government policy and intent. It would seem therefore, that if the properties are associated with specific ingredients and mixtures of ingredients, then awareness of the ‘value’ of these ingredients must rise. And if this does in fact happen, then how can this adversely effect the supplement industry?

Some might say that this process would cannibalize the marketplace, with consumers getting more nutrition from food and therefore choosing fewer supplements, and this may in fact happen with some consumers who implement the complete lifestyle changes recommended. The reality is likely to be a combination of healthier choices (responding in part to healthy alternatives being made available by food companies) and an increase in selective supplementation – where the science is there.

This choice will be influenced by health claims on foods, strong brand development and differentiation and by an industry-wide self-policing mechanism that not only supports GMP’s, but goes well beyond that to ensure efficacy and in fact, to punish companies behaving irresponsibly or seeking to take advantage of a heightened awareness of health benefits associated with supplements.

And when you add the ‘one up, one down’ tracking required by the Bioterror legislation, fringe suppliers who do not comply or do not take the time to understand the requirements will be eliminated from the marketplace and existing relationships are likely to become stronger and less reliant on price alone.

While these are challenging times, the opportunities are enormous.

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