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Innovating in nutrition and health pays off

Published: 06-09-2016

The functional food hype appears to be over in Europe. But for food manufacturers it still pays to innovate in nutrition and health, says Prof. Dr. Renger Witkamp, Professor in Nutrition and Pharmacology at Wageningen University, “You need to think in new business models and beyond your industry.” 

Only a decade ago, expectations around functional foods were sky-high. “We imagined adding bioactive components to so many foods, making health benefits available to almost everyone”, illustrates Witkamp.

Food versus medicine
But today, the words functional foods feel overused. “It is not only difficult to get health claims approved for foods with bioactive ingredients, but even more complicated to translate these into measurable or even perceived health benefits. If you prove that a daily chunk of cocoa-rich chocolate enhances blood-vessel elasticity can you also convince consumers and regulators that this helps to prevent cardiovascular diseases?”, the professor explains.

The Chinese have the expression Food is your first medicine. “However, although you would like foods to enhance health as medicines can, overconsumption is rather easier. Therefore, the effects should be weaker than medicines. Taking these issues into account, only a few opportunities remain.”

The trend seems to be moving towards nutritional solutions again. “Adding specific bioactives or even medicines to food hasn’t met most of our expectations. Margarine enriched with phytosterols or eggs high in lutein and zeaxanthin are likely to remain exceptions”, explains Witkamp. “Remarkably, these developments are also seen in nutrition for high-risk groups or patients. In fact, nutritional products are increasingly finding their way into markets traditionally dominated by pharma, rather than the other way around.”

One opportunity for functional foods is nutrition tailored to people with special needs. However, original ideas about personalized nutrition were too simple. Witkamp refers to a recent publication in the high-impact journal Cell, on blood-sugar levels after food consumption. “Even ‘normal’ individuals appeared to respond very differently to similar foods. And this remains difficult to explain.”

Personalized nutrition
According to the professor, personalized nutrition concepts will become more important in the future. “They will be mainly targeted at general phenotypes – for example whether someone is obese, or ageing – rather than DNA profiles”, he says. “In the beginning, DNA profiles seemed to be the key, but now we know that genetics is only one of many factors that determine how the body responds to individual foods.”

The gastrointestinal microbiota are certainly relevant in the development of personalized nutrition concepts. “Several studies have shown that patients with, for example, Crohn’s Disease have an aberrant gut microbiota composition. Dietary strategies could intentionally alter the microbiota of these people towards a more-healthy composition”, says Witkamp. “But first we need to find out whether changes in the microbiota are the cause or result of disease.”

The elderly
Witkamp sees major market opportunities for personalized nutrition for the elderly, such as protein-enriched foods to maintain muscle mass. “The elderly nowadays want to know how they can help themselves”, he says. “Terms like maintaining vitality and entering a new stage of life are well-received by elderly consumers, and there are many seniors able and willing to pay extra for products with health benefits.”

It’s just a small step further to imagine personalized nutrition for those with chronic diseases, and people recovering from severe diseases like cancer. “Such patients often suffer from fatigue, which could be caused by a chronic systemic inflammation”, Witkamp explains. “At Wageningen UR we are studying underlying mechanisms, and investigating how patients could be activated physically, mentally and emotionally; via nutrition, training and personalized feedback. For example, my colleague Dr. Klaske van Norren and her team are, together with Nutricia, studying combinations of ingredient mixtures with vibrant training to prevent loss of muscle mass.”

New business models
Whether the focus is the elderly or chronic disease, food manufacturers will need new business models, says Witkamp: “Protein-enriched or sugar-reduced foods, for example, work best when they are part of an intervention program, one which includes physical exercise and elements that motivate people to stick with a healthy diet and lifestyle”, he stresses. Self-monitoring via modern wearables could play a crucial role. “Seeing the immediate effects of their behavior stimulates people to continue with the intervention.”

Witkamp sees plenty of opportunities for manufacturers who dare to look beyond their own industry: “Imagine collaborations between health care professionals, insurance companies, caterers, gyms and homes for the elderly.”

Voeding Slim Thuis (Smart Nutrition at Home)
An example of ‘thinking beyond your industry’ is Voeding Slim Thuis, initiated and coordinated by Wageningen UR. “With partners in the care sector we are exploring an online, personalized, medicines and meals service, combined with personalized advice and monitoring”, he says. Such a service could have a preventative element. “For example, pharmacists know that people taking proton-pump inhibitors, to prevent stomach ulcers, are at risk of developing vitamin-B12 deficiency and that people taking more than ten different medicines per day are generally at risk of malnutrition.”

Increased dialogue
EFSA’s health-claim regulations will (and must) remain strict, but Witkamp believes dialogue with the food industry will continue to improve, which will help to develop R&D strategies better tailored towards claim substantiation goals. Moreover, developments in systems biology, using combinations of physiological and biochemical markers, will facilitate health-claim substantiation. “We will be better able to measure the subtle health effects of nutrition, take into account differences between and within people, and translate these into more-personalized consumer offerings”, he says. “Thus, food manufacturers should not be put off by current barriers; the world will look completely different in just a few years.”

Wageningen University & Research