Fi Global Insights is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Fi Europe 2023

How innovative ingredients are pushing the boundaries of functional foods [Interview]

Article-How innovative ingredients are pushing the boundaries of functional foods [Interview]

© Fi Global Insights Fi Europe 2023 Interview with Sophie Medlin
As someone who has built a career designing probiotics and vitamin supplements, Sophie Medlin is a leading expert in the field of innovative ingredients for functional foods. She explores how these can be used to benefit immunity, gut health, blood glucose regulation, and sleep.

Now running her own dietitian consultancy and clinic, CityDietitians, that expertise will be tapped during a presentation she will be giving at Fi Europe Conference, to be held in Frankfurt, November 28 – 30. In this interview Sophie goes into more detail about how the industry is helping to provide solutions for these issues, as well as highlighting some of the hurdles that have to be overcome.

Firstly, how do you define the main differences between traditional and innovative ingredients in functional foods?

“In terms of ingredients and functional foods, the way that we would differentiate between traditional and innovative ingredients would be to consider things that are standard nutrients, like vitamin C, vitamin B, and also omega 3s. I would consider those to be additional ingredients. In terms of innovative ingredients, I would consider these to be more along the lines of botanicals and nootropic ingredients, which are not yet clearly defined or ingredients that are considered to be standardised nutrients.”

What are the specific advantages of traditional ingredients and what are the advantages of innovative ingredients?

“The advantages of traditional ingredients, in terms of manufacturers and producers, is that there are already existing specific health claims on them, which means that it is more clear to the consumer what their benefits are, and what they are likely to receive. The downside is that most people will get those nutrients from their existing diet, so there is less requirement for them.

“In terms of the advantages of innovative ingredients, it is likely that patients or consumers will not be getting them elsewhere in the diet, so they are more likely to benefit from them. However, there are no specific health claims or as much research that we can lean on to demonstrate the benefits and outcomes of these ingredients.”

How are recent advances in innovative ingredients helping to push the boundaries of functional foods?

“There have been some great advances in functional foods, and in particular we have seen some really nice products come onto the market that contain probiotics. We have also seen advances in terms of prebiotics and fibre, which has been really beneficial to both consumers and the industry. On the whole, there is a lot of consumer interest in this area at the moment and we have seen a lot of benefits as a result.

“Products like gut health snack bars, that can help to increase fibre intake, are really pushing the boundaries. However, there are downsides to this, including people struggling with symptoms like bloating and discomfort from these types of products. So, although it is an exciting area to look at, there is certainly more work to be done by the industry.

“Overall, there have been some challenges to advancing gut health, as well as some progress. In the past few years, there has been a big push towards keto products and products that are fibre-free, as part of the ketogenic diet. In reality, what we want to be doing now is to swing that pendulum towards improving gut health, as opposed to emphasising products that potentially have a less positive impact on gut health.

“On the other hand, we have seen some really nice innovations that reduce preservatives, sweeteners, emulsifiers, and other additives associated with ultra-processed foods in the industry, which is exciting to see.”

What advances are being made in the treatment of specific conditions like immunity, gut health, blood glucose regulation, and sleep?

“Following the pandemic, we saw a huge influx of products specifically targeted at immunity. Of course, this was a difficult time for many people and it wasn't an ideal scenario to be promoting immunity-focused ingredients. However, it is certainly something consumers are very interested in and supporting immunity through diet. If we link immunity and gut health in particular, we can see some real benefits in terms of probiotic and prebiotic products, as well as the nutrients that we know to be associated with immunity, like vitamin C and other antioxidants. So, that's been an exciting advance for the industry and I think that will result in making a difference to people in terms of immunity.

“Fibre is a really useful nutrient for blood glucose regulation as well as providing protein. And there are other exciting nutraceuticals coming onto the market focused on blood glucose regulation, which is becoming increasingly popular. Alongside this, we are also seeing increased use of continuous blood glucose monitoring, which will certainly continue to expand the market for products and innovations that support blood glucose regulation.

“Sleep has also been a big focus of many people, which is an area that has been driven by the wellness community. Sleep is obviously something that's a huge focus for many people, and we have seen lots of really nice innovations in focused on this area, including advances that move away from solutions like melatonin into more natural or less medicinal supplements, which is making an impact on the industry. Examples of this are products containing ingredients like L-theanine and saffron extract.”

What is the best way to convince consumers about the advantages of supplemental ingredients in functional foods? And how can consumers be swayed towards new and innovative ingredients?

“I think that the best way for consumers to get on board with functional and innovative ingredients is to include them in familiar foods and products so they become a part of their natural snacking and food habits, with additional benefits. Snack bars are a useful product to support people with additional health benefits and we have also seen great advances with eggs being fortified with omega 3s, as another example. But the best thing to do is to try and make these types of foods part of someone’s existing routine and diet so they can feel the benefits from them.”