The connection between diet and health is a theme that is growing rapidly, both within the food sector and with consumers.
With food brands under pressure to react to environmental shifts and changing consumer needs, we asked companies across the value chain how they are working to improve health through nutritional innovation, and whether they believe food brands have a duty to the health of consumers. Read on as they set the scene for core conversations at Future Food-Tech San Francisco this March 16-17.
Abigail Storms, Global Head of Speciality Sweeteners, TATE & LYLE, cites the pandemic as a driving force for consumers’ re-evaluating their life choices:
“With the pandemic increasing people’s awareness of the importance of a healthy diet and lifestyle, we know consumers are looking for healthier, great tasting options at the point-of-purchase. We improve the nutrition profiles in the products of our customers by reducing sugar and adding fiber and protein.”
Paul Bakus, President of North America, PURATOS agrees: “Consumers’ approach to health and wellbeing is increasingly intentional and mindful with holistic health, issue prevention and good life balance taking the center stage. Consumers worldwide are trying to increase consumption of food such as fruit, vegetable and wholegrains that can help them to fulfil the quota of nutrients they fall short on, such as fibers, vitamin and minerals.”
However, not all shifts in consumer behaviour are moving towards better health. Haven Baker, Co-Founder & CBO, PAIRWISE tells us that in the US, folks are shifting away from the traditional ‘three meals a day’, and moving instead towards a snacking society. This poses problems as modern snacks are often lacking in vital nutrients: “Today, a mere 3% of the innovation in the supermarket is in produce. To address diet and health it’s imperative that we adapt fruits and vegetables to our snacking culture.”
Nutrition as luxury
Sadly, nutritious healthy and fresh food is often considered a luxury, with lower income families scrambling to make ends meet and opting for cheaper solutions.
Todd Rands, President & CEO, ELO LIFE SYSTEMS details the impact of this scenario: “A diverse and nutritious diet is vital to human health, yet it is largely inaccessible to a vast percentage of the world’s population. According to a report from the UN, “three billion people cannot afford a healthy diet.” Studies also show that global diets are increasingly made up of ultra-processed foods, which include high levels of added sugars and other unhealthy ingredients contributing to increasing levels of chronic diseases such diabetes, heart disease, hepatitis, stroke, cancer, arthritis, and kidney disease. The true societal cost of these poor quality foods is accumulating as trillions of dollars in healthcare and related costs continue to mount.”
Many call for action across the food system, with Todd going on to say: “We can do better. The food industry can eliminate harmful ingredients that cause chronic diseases. And removing excess sugar from our diets is perhaps the single most impactful action we can take to improve human health.”
Sara Eckhouse, Executive Director, FOODSHOT GLOBAL shares Todd’s sentiments: “We need innovators to pursue systemic changes and new business models that center equity so that we can improve access to and affordability of healthy foods. These system-level changes are critical to improve nutrition security around the world and ensure that scientific advances in food and nutrition are accessible to all.”
From the manufacturing perspective, food brand TATE & LYLE recognizes the role it plays in consumer health, with Abigail Storms illustrating the company’s duty to customers: “Through our ingredients, innovative solutions, and clinical research, we know that we can have the biggest impact on nutrition and health. Over the last two years, Tate & Lyle has removed four million tons of sugar from people’s diets – equivalent to 16 trillion calories – by successfully partnering with our customers to meet their needs.”
Jeff Nobbs, CEO & Co-Founder, ZERO ACRE FARMS echoes the importance of removing harmful ingredients: “Often what is removed from one’s diet is just as important in improving one’s health as what is added. The removal of certain ingredients–such as sugar and seed oils–from packaged foods and restaurant meals not only capture growing consumer interest in cleaner ingredient labels, but may also be one of the largest levers we have as a society to reverse increasing rates of chronic disease and obesity.”
Food as medicine
With obesity and chronic illness at an all-time high, the urgency of addressing the health crisis is rising. Consumer awareness is building, with ZERO ACRE FARMS’ Jeff Nobbs noting: “As healthy life expectancy in the US continues to decline, consumers are increasingly understanding that diet plays a major role, if not the major role in their health. As a result, they are also becoming increasingly discerning and vocal about the ingredient lists of foods across all categories. Food companies that aren’t listening will be left behind.”
Sara Eckhouse, Executive Director, FOODSHOT GLOBAL furthers this, demonstrating the height of the crisis: “Current data indicates a clear link between our food choices and chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure, which are in turn related to cancer, stroke, and dementia. Diabetes currently affects 468 million people, and an additional 316 million with impaired glucose tolerance are at high risk from the disease. That number is only expected to grow; in the U.S., nearly 1 in 5 adolescents aged 12–18 years and 1 in 4 young adults aged 19–34 years have prediabete.”
Fortunately, the rise of “food as medicine” is gaining traction among consumers seeking to deepen their understanding of the role of nutrition and healthy eating.
Laura Katz, CEO, HELAINA: “The future of medicine is intimately linked with food, as science continues to break new ground on nourishment through what we eat. More than 60% of consumers today are using food to manage their health according to a recent survey from IFT. At Helaina, our team is bringing immune-nourishing proteins to food with the power of precision fermentation. We will use these proteins in our first-of-its-kind infant formula and as ingredients in functional foods from nutritional bars and powders to nutritional shakes.”
Jackie Schulz, Global Director of Nutrition, GRIFFITH FOODS: “As a nutrition scientist, I am a strong believer in the role that nutrition can play in preventing chronic disease and in managing conditions in conjunction with other lifestyle approaches. That said, we continue to see momentum around the concept of food playing a key role in health, and this is very positive for highlighting the important role nutrition plays. I anticipate more interest in functional ingredients that can support this idea, and technologies that provide consumers with more insight on how specific foods or nutrients can play a role in their individual objectives.”
As consumer demand for clean label products grows, how are food brands approaching this in their innovation strategy?
GRIFFITH FOODS’ Jackie Schulz tells that the consumer interest in clean label is increasingly top of mind while developing products: “As opposed to reformulating to replace certain ingredients, developers start out with clean label in mind as they innovate. Where there is a need to use ingredients that may not fit this trend, insights, evidence, and education will be key components to prioritize in order to deliver the most effective and nutritious solutions to consumers.”
Keeping to the topic of ‘clean label’, Yadu Dar, Director, Plant Based Proteins, tells of INGREDION’s central focus in its products and initiatives: “Plant based foods with a clean label and nutrition targeting their natural plant based sources continue to be a key area of focus for us – balancing nutritional needs with the treatments needed for food safety should be an important consideration in developing new ingredients and products.”
In order to stay relevant in the eyes of consumers, Paul Bakus, President of North America, PURATOS believes the food industry has to always be one step ahead: “The food industry has to constantly innovate and renovate its offer and explore new and upcoming ingredient streams such as upcycled raw materials, to always deliver solutions that are tasty, appealing, nutritionally valuable and aligned to people health goals, but also affordable. Specifically, in our sector of bakery, patisserie and chocolate applications, besides adding fruits, grains and seeds, our focus goes to the intrinsic quality of plant-based and fermentation-based ingredients.”
So – is there hope for the health of our consumers?
ELO LIFE SYSTEM’s Todd Rands believes so: “The future of our food system requires a break from traditional approaches, using technology to create new solutions that improve human health while reducing the impact of food production on our environment. To have real impact, innovators must solve for both of these critical problems. And nature already provides many of the answers we need.”
Sara Eckhouse, Executive Director, FOODSHOT GLOBAL agrees: “If we can combine technological innovations with strategies to improve accessibility to and affordability of healthy food, we may be able to bend the cost curve of diet-related disease.”