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How is Covid-19 shifting demand for health ingredients?

“The future post COVID-19 is about health prevention through food.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, which is most threatening to people with various underlying health conditions often associated with poor dietary habits, has triggered consumers to examine their health.

This has amplified consumers’ search for healthy products and functional foods that might help them in improving their health, argued panellists in a recent Fi Global Insights webinar, such as through weight loss or improving their blood glucose levels.

As fear has spread through the population, particularly those in vulnerable groups including the elderly, diabetics and pregnant women, people want to find ways to stay healthy.

“The future post COVID-19 is about health prevention through food,” said Peter Wennström, founder of The Healthy Marketing Team.

Even before the pandemic, the ‘better for you’ and health food market was booming and worth more than $1 trillion globally. In 2018, the market for functional foods was $161.49 and forecast to reach $275.77 billion by 2025.

“Better-for-you foods almost certainly have seen growth during the Covid-19 pandemic”, said Nathan Gray, managing director of Nutraceutic.

He pointed to a consumer survey undertaken by Nutraceutic in collaboration with Trust Transparency Center in May 2020, that found 40% of those respondents taking supplements were paying more attention to them, such as through higher doses or taking more types.

People with seriously elevated blood sugar levels are one of the groups more at risk of dying from COVID-19.

“If you are in the business of better carbohydrates or sugars you are in the right place to be now. If you can find a way to help companies formulate products or create them yourself that help modulate blood sugar response then you’re in the best place for the next 2-3 years at least,” said Julian Mellentin, founder of New Nutrition Business.

Fear around the COVID-19 virus was not limited to vulnerable groups. Millennials will continue to drive the specialised nutrition category, said Rick Miller, associate director, specialised nutrition, Mintel.

“They’re the most fearful around the risk of exposure and infection and most likely to make changes as a result of change,” he said.

There has already been a significant increase in food, drink and healthcare product launches with an immunity claim targeting vulnerable groups over the past five years. Europe leads the world in this category with the most immunity-enhancing product launches (41%) in the food, drink and healthcare category between 2015-20.

“The immunity trend is not a blip. It’s going to get stronger and keep growing, at least until we get a COVID-19 vaccine. The lack of a vaccine encourages experimentation. Consumers will look elsewhere. People will make their own faith and belief system. Food and drink that can support the immune system is one big area of interest for European consumers,” said Miller.

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Consumers are already more actively buying probiotic products that have existing consumer recognition of improving the immune system. And during the pandemic they have also jumped to vitamin C and D at times, while research around the benefits of fruit and vegetables for anti-inflammatory benefits has given a boost to plant-based diets.

“Plants are a good place to be,” said Wennström. Miller agreed and said consumers were keen on seeking out natural solutions. “If you are not already involved in botanicals, herbal extracts or other natural solutions, you may be missing a trick,” he said, although they must be recognisable ingredients already known to consumers.

But that is not to say anything plant-based is booming.

“We all know that people want more plants, but they want plants they can understand. So if you are in the business of supplying vegetable powders, fruit pieces or anything people can incorporate into breads or confectionery then you’re in the right place. But one thing being hyped is plant-based meat substitutes made from soy or pea protein. We’ve been told it has massively exploded with Covid-19 pandemic, but it hasn’t,” said Mellentin, who pointed out that plant based alternatives had been left on the shelves in some cases during the phase of panic buying by consumers.

Consumers have instead gone back to basics and looked for products they know and understand. They have also still wanted to indulge themselves and snack. “What people love to turn to in times of crisis is indulgence and things they find comfortable. They tend to default to what they liked before,” said Mellentin.

For snacking, the future may be nutritious snacking.

“People are looking at the best ways to reduce the chance of illness so looking at high protein and low sugar alternatives. Nutritious snacks with a meaning and clear benefit,” said Wennström.

One trend that may be taking a backseat, but only in the short-term is sustainability. Consumers are facing an inner conflict over their use of plastic against their health and safety, which may be taking priority at present, agreed the panellists.

That being said, provenance, sustainability and transparency still mattered and were spreading across the industry, as seen through the involvement of mainstream companies like Danone.

“People may not be thinking about sustainability and traceability now, but once we get over the acute stage brands need to be mindful of that,” said Miller.

On-demand webinar: Impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the demand for Health Ingredients

Key Takeaways:

  • The pandemic has demonstrated how we are responsible for our own health and will amplify consumers’ search for healthier foods.
  • The growth opportunities are for supplements and healthy foods as well as categories like nutritious snacking.
  • Boosting immunity or reducing blood sugar levels are both key areas of consumer demand.
  • Sustainability may be taking a backseat to safety, but this is only likely to be temporary.
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