Innovation hot spot lies at overlap of 'natural,' science and sustainability, expert says

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

iStock Zoran Zeremeski
iStock Zoran Zeremeski

Related tags Dietary supplement industry Nutrition Dietary supplement

The drive toward shorter, cleaner labels and the oft-mentioned dearth of innovation in the supplement sphere are both factors of the maturation of the dietary supplement  and functional foods industries, according to one expert.

As former editor of Nutrition Business Journal,​ Marc Brush had his finger on the trend pulse of the industry. In that role and in his conversations with industry leaders Brush has had since launching his own consulting business he has seen the shift in the marketplace away from highly processed foods and ingredients toward a more ‘natural’ mode. He’s also seen the antecedents of this, looking back to a time when food scientists were going to make us all healthier and happier. There’s been a backlash, with many consumers equating food science with concepts that benefit food manufacturers but not consumers. The food didn’t get healthier, it just got cheaper to manufacture, or so the thinking goes. 

What are the opportunities within that overall trend?  Is the pendulum starting to shift back toward believing that a 'new and improved' claim might actually mean what it says? Are consumers starting to believe that food is trending toward getting healthier, and that food formulators aren’t spending all of their time on figuring out the next Lucky Charms line extension, figuratively speaking? And what do these food space macro trends mean for the dietary supplement industry?

Brush sat down with NutraIngredients-USA to look at some of these trends.

Q: What’s working right now in the food and supplement space? What are the big wins?

A: There are broad wins from the shift in food toward natural that are fairly easy to track at this point in supplements—get closer to food, get closer to whole-form, in-state nutrition, keep your processing light and low. We can take the success of plant-based powders as evidence.

There's something much deeper at stake, however, than winners and losers. What kind of science do we really want in service of food? The advance of natural comes at the retreat of food science—at least as we once knew it—and I would argue that much of the current dietary supplement industry sits uncomfortably under that food science umbrella. 

I remember giving a speech at IFIC (International Food Information Council) several years ago to a roomful of food scientists and talking about natural, not only the shift toward natural in food but the necessity of that shift. Consumers are humans, and humans are animals, and when the world falls into uncertainty and peril, animals respond. I see the shift toward natural as more than a trend. It's an imperative, a consumer-driven expression of our animal drive toward survival. As such, it will take a generation to unravel, and we're still thick in the midst of that unraveling.

Q: So are we going back to a time when those who can afford it will buy their eggs from the farm and get their vegetables from local market gardens, etc.? Or is this pendulum starting to shift back to where consumers might at a gut level start to trust highly formulated products again?

Marc Brush

A: There comes a time when the victory is assured and the perspective broadens again. The signs are there now, if you look. Hampton Creek, for all its trials and travails, remains the signpost for a revitalized food science in better sync with the natural order, and in its wake have sprung dozens of startups with lab coats and beakers at their core. Look to the cohorts coming out of IndieBio for examples.

As food science rehabilitates itself, that will present real opportunity for dietary supplement companies to embrace their history, their approach to nutrition, their very reason for existence. It's a tough time right now. Sales are slower, sure, but the real challenge lies in how to talk about the industry in a way consumers won't reject wholesale, even if they turn around and buy product anyway as a cheap form of health insurance.

I think of it like a Venn diagram, with one circle for natural, another for food science, and another for sustainability. Find that overlap and make products there.

Q: We’ve seen categories come and go;  acai was going to save the world and then the enthusiasm seems to have waned.  Green coffee bean extract rose like Icarus and crashed like him, too.  What’s the next big thing in your view?  And is it a good idea that there would even be a Next Big Thing? Should the dietary supplement industry now be about consolidating gains, nailing down supply questions and not about chasing after the brass ring of double digit growth?

A:​ There may be another next big thing or two around the intersection of genomics, the microbiome, and nutrition, but I wouldn't expect many more green teas or raspberry ketones. The era of Dr. Oz and fad ingredients has clearly leveled out, and that's a good thing for the industry. You could call it 'consolidating gains' but I think of it more as shoring up the foundation. As you suggest, success in supplements will come from differentiations around quality and traceability in the supply chain, and, for the truly brave of heart, deeper investments in pure science.

Q: Industry observers have been talking for years about a dearth of innovation in the supplement space.  Is that true?

A: ​It's true, but it's OK. The negative press, the regulatory scrutiny, the bad actors, all of these play a role, but I think the path to true innovation is just hard and the economics of dietary supplements don't always support that effort. We really need to find a path to IP protection for supplements, whatever that might look like. I just don't see a sales spike in green coffee bean tied to Oz or Mercola as indicative of any meaningful innovation.

It will happen. The industry is still so young, and it's pursuit of health is so meaningful. The slow loss of allure from 'innovation' tied to fad ingredients is a sign of maturity, in my book.

Q: A consensus is still forming around the import of the NDI guidance.  If it becomes final in its current form, do you think that could be the end of the multi-ingredient formula? 

A:​ Industry will gather in smarter and smarter ways to engage with regulators. So I don't know if these specific provisions stick, or if their enforcement spells the death knell for dietary supplements as some economic forecasts out there convincingly predict. But I do think that FDA has the upper hand at this point. The negative press got too loud, the bad actors wrought too much reputational damage.

I would vote for a unified, calm, reasoned response from industry that files off the rough edges of the NDI guidance while simultaneously acknowledging a need for new and different regulations in concert with the $30 billion-plus, maturing industry that dietary supplements have become.

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