Functional Ingredients Challenge Food Industry, Elevate Need for Public Standards

Even as food companies rush to find exciting functional food ingredients, they face a number of challenges in characterizing and analyzing novel findings.

Functional ingredients in foods—marketed to improve cognition, enhance athletic performance, boost energy, aid in weight loss, or address other health-related conditions—are the innovative area in the food industry. The trend shows no sign of slowing down, buoyed in large part by an aging population seeking to stay active and healthy. Many of the ingredients being incorporated into foods are plant-derived—from the next super berry to the new groundbreaking no-calorie sweetener—further tapping into consumers’ growing desire for “natural” ingredients.

Manufacturers are responding accordingly—unveiling new products featuring these functional ingredients in just about every food category. Manufacturer excitement has been tempered, however, by growing regulatory scrutiny regarding the health claims they are making for these products. This includes the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the FDA, and especially the European Food Safety Authority, with the latter seemingly expecting to see proof at the clinical trial level for most health claims. Regulators want to see these claims grounded in sound science.

But this is not just a regulatory compliance issue. Even without pushback from regulators, companies need to be concerned with their intellectual property as these ingredients grow in popularity. Many responsible companies are investing heavily in the functional foods category. However, this whole industry segment could be ruined by irresponsible suppliers or companies that either knowingly make false or misleading claims or neglect to do their due diligence—both of which can undermine the legitimate work underway and negatively impact consumer perception across the board.

To serve as a true resource for the food industry, many of the new standards being advanced through the U.S. Pharmacopeial’s Food Chemicals Codex are those ingredients that are of high interest to manufacturers and consumers.

From a scientific perspective, these functional ingredients present numerous challenges. Many offer promise, but questions remain about how they will work once they are incorporated into food products. There may be açaí berries growing in the jungles of Brazil (and recently also in China), but how do you get these berries out of the jungle and into a finished product? Given the transportation associated with complex global supply chains and processing conditions, along with numerous other variables involved in mass production of food, do the finished products still offer consumers the same benefits as they would enjoy eating the berries off the tree? Have they been altered in a way not visible to the purchaser through the addition of other, non-listed ingredients or the removal of valuable constituents?

An additional challenge is characterizing and analyzing these materials, particularly the ones that fall into the natural category, such as açaí berries, pomegranate juice, or stevia. This is far more difficult than characterizing something like table salt or Vitamin C—simple chemicals that involve relatively straightforward analytical work. Determining the identity of plant-derived functional ingredients is vital.

There may be a host of compounds present within an individual plant, with perhaps one in particular that shows some health benefit. Ensuring that you have captured that compound, as opposed to another in the plant, is important for connecting a product to the demonstrated health benefit or other desired function. In the case of plant-based, no-calorie sweetener stevia, for example, the most commonly used compound from the stevia leaf was initially rebaudioside A. But how would a manufacturer confirm it has procured high-purity rebaudioside A, as opposed to a mixture of rebaudioside B, C, D, E, F? These compounds are all present on the stevia leaves and have similar properties. Yet the desired sweetener taste profile will be different, and the regulatory approval of rebaudioside A may not extend to a mixture that includes the other compounds. How does a manufacturer confirm that it is sourcing what it expects?

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