February 2019 Issue

Hottest Trends in 'Natural' Food Products
By Jenna A. Bell, PhD, RD
Today's Dietitian
Vol. 21, No. 2, P. 28

This category is brimming with new product introductions. Here's what's trending and some tips for keeping up with the new releases.

The "natural" products category is increasing in popularity as it has expanded to encompass a vast number of products, foods, supplements, and even services.

The term "natural" may mean that the product is plant based or was grown in nature, or it could mean the ingredients are plant based or were grown in nature. Products can include natural ingredients familiar to us from vegetables or fruits, or they can contain novel or naturally sourced ingredients, or those unrecognizable to the average consumer such as herbs or bacterial strains. Despite these possibilities, the term "natural" remains elusive and open for interpretation by consumers and manufacturers alike.

No Definition? No Problem
Many would agree that the term "natural" is trendy, but it has never been officially defined. In 2015, the FDA solicited public comments regarding the term, asking whether it was appropriate to develop a definition, how should it be defined, and how might the FDA determine its appropriate use on food labels.1 In February 2018, The New York Times reported that FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, e-mailed a statement saying, "We recognize that consumers are trusting in products labeled 'natural' without clarity around the term." He added that "consumers have called upon the FDA to help define the term 'natural,' and we take the responsibility to provide this clarity seriously. We will have more to say on the issue soon."2 After receiving more than 7,600 comments, the FDA didn't come to a regulatory decision.

Not to be swayed, the natural category has gained momentum in the health and wellness industry. The New Hope Network, a division of Informa PLC, provides content, events, data, research, and consultative services for the healthful lifestyle products industry. The organization produces the Natural Products Expo East and West, among other events. In the absence of a regulated definition, the group has developed its own Ingredient Standards and Guidelines for exhibitors.3 It doesn't allow specific artificial ingredients in foods at Natural Products Expos, including artificial sweeteners, flavors, or colors; high-fructose corn syrup; hydrogenated oils; or MSG. It also doesn't allow products containing GMOs to be labeled as "natural."

Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club and owner of NutritionStarringYOU.com, says that both the FDA and the New Hope Network's standards and guidelines for exhibitors provide comprehensive but confusing guidance. "Basically, in order to be called 'natural,' products cannot have artificial ingredients, but neither address growing, handling, processing, or manufacturing practices. Also, 'natural' does not signify healthy, fresh, safe, or effective, as many consumers may assume."

Even though nutrition professionals know that natural doesn't mean healthful, many of today's natural products are marketed as a wellness solution. "After attending Natural Products Expo East 2018, it's clear that consumers are looking to achieve health in a variety of ways," Harris-Pincus says. "People are purchasing products for their gut, immune system, heart, or other biological system."

New in 'Natural'
Since consumers believe there are many ways to achieve health and wellness, manufacturers have responded accordingly, producing a vast number of products claiming to solve a variety of health problems. Companies also are selling products to solve old problems like reducing environmental impact or improving sports performance. Other companies are fancifying beverages or taking meat alternatives to a new level.

What follows is a snapshot of what's hot in the natural foods category based on products showcased at industry expos and in trade publications in 2018. These products focus on muscle health, joint and bone health, and environmental health.

Muscle Health
Scientists and health care professionals understand the importance of muscle health in aging and chronic disease, but its relevance in the consumer market is fairly new.4 Muscle health products already on the market include those that contain β-hydroxy β-methylbutyrate (HMB), a product of leucine metabolism for muscle protein synthesis.5 "As a naturally occurring metabolite, HMB stimulates muscle protein synthesis and helps with muscle repair while blunting muscle breakdown—these help us maintain activities of daily living as we age,"5 says Pamela Nisevich Bede, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, author of Runner's World Run to Lose: A Complete Guide to Weight Loss for Runners. Abbott Nutrition's Ensure Enlive contains HMB, as does its therapeutic nutrition powder, Juven. Abbott Nutrition claims that Juven has been clinically shown to support wound healing in as little as two weeks and help build and maintain lean body mass in four weeks.6 Newcomers myHMB and myHMB Clear from TSI Group Ltd, in partnership with Metabolic Technologies, Inc, also are addressing muscle health and aging. According to the manufacturers, research shows that HMB may help preserve muscle mass, improve exercise recovery, and enhance quality of life in the later years.7

Inflammation also is a chief concern when it comes to muscle recovery. Says Nisevich Bede, "Inflammation resulting from strenuous exercise or eccentric muscle contraction can have a negative impact on recovery. Muscle recovery is imperative for active people so they can get back on the field, road, or court." BASF Group and Nuritas took an innovative approach to helping combat inflammation and speed muscle recovery. Their teams partnered to present the science behind an ingredient that will help reduce inflammation at a SupplySide West lunch briefing in Las Vegas in November 2018. In the session, "The next generation of immune-active peptides for sports recovery," presenters described how they took a novel approach to scientific discovery. Nuritas employed artificial intelligence algorithms to predict food sources of peptides that will provide a bioactive benefit.8 By adding the ingredient to bars or beverages, they plan to offer a natural solution to exercise-induced inflammation to hasten recovery.

Reduce, Recover, Recycle
Stratum Nutrition, a former family-owned poultry farm turned nutraceutical company in Carthage, Missouri, took on the challenge of reducing food waste to use a combination of ingredients in supplement form to promote joint and bone health. The company's challenge—reduce, recover, recycle—was patterned after the USDA, which launched the first initiative in 2013 to focus on reducing food waste. Stratum's goal was to reduce the waste created in the poultry industry by recovering and recycling eggshells. From eggshells, it develops supplements for structural, dental, and immune health. NEM brand eggshell membrane, one of its supplement products, claims to support joint health for active adults.9 The supplement also contains glycosaminoglycans, such as chondroitin and hyaluronic acid, as well as three varieties of collagen. The company says it prevents thousands of tons of eggshells from going into landfills so it can use them to produce NEM and a newer product called ESC brand eggshell calcium.

Meat Innovations
Remember when burgers made without meat were simply called "veggie burgers?" Now, the names "meatless," "plant-protein," "pulse-based," "hybrid," and "clean meat" have entered the scene. Sales of plant-based meat alternatives increased by 24% in the United States in 2018, according to Nielsen. Innova Market Insights found that 14% of new meat launches globally in the first nine months of 2018 were meat alternatives.10 According to a July 2018 article in Food Insider Journal, frozen foods are a hot spot for innovative proteins, with sales of plant-based meat alternatives up 32.3% and entrées up 18.4% since 2017. Many of the companies say they're targeting consumers who eat meat, since vegetarians and vegans represent about 5% of the US population.

The leaders of the meat alternatives market appear to be entrepreneurs and innovators. Organizations such as the Good Food Institute (GFI) have been established to provide marketing, design, legal, business, media, and other support to a select number of start-up companies. GFI comprises a team of scientists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and lobbyists, all of whom are using markets and food technology to move towards "clean meat" and plant-based alternatives. As with many of the meat alternative companies, GFI's intention is to focus on plant-based foods to address global food insecurity, protect the environment, and enhance human health—some (including GFI) also cite animal welfare. While The Boston Globe stated in November 2018 that "fake meat" may need a more appetizing name, nonmeat options are hot off the grill and growing in popularity.

The following companies are considered some of the most notable innovators:

Memphis Meats, Inc in San Francisco is a food technology company that produces food by sourcing cells from animals and cultivating them into meat. It offers "lab-grown" meatballs, chicken, and duck.

Impossible Foods, Inc in Redwood City, California, develops plant-based substitutes for meat and dairy products. It's known for its Impossible Burger with the heme-containing soy protein, soy leghemoglobin. As described on the company website, the company takes the DNA from soy plants and inserts it into a genetically engineered yeast. It ferments the yeast to produce heme, which is what makes meat taste like meat.

Beyond Meat in Los Angeles produces plant-based burgers, ground meat, sausages, and chicken strips. It targets flexitarians and intends to stay in the meat case. Products are meant to look, cook, and taste like their real, animal-based equivalents. The ingredient list of the Beyond Meat burger includes pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, and refined coconut oil. The rest of the ingredients include cellulose from bamboo, potato starch, yeast extract, and beet root extract to give the appearance of a rare cooked hamburger.

Seattle Food Tech in Seattle is a new food manufacturing and production company that produces plant-based chicken nuggets and chicken strips for schools, hospitals, universities, and the military. According to a December 2018 article on FoodNavigator-USA, the start-up company raised another $1 million from investors.

Ebullient Beverages
In addition to plant-based meat innovations, beverages in all sorts of flavors have become a trend in and of themselves over the past five years. In 2013, Natural Products Insider magazine discussed how beverages are now boasting energy-enhancing powers, in addition to "real" and "fresh" ingredients.

Alongside energy boosters, consumers can choose enhanced, infused, sweetened, unsweetened, flavored, nutty, mom-approved, caffeinated, powdered, eco-friendly, unpasteurized, unfiltered, cold-pressed, fermented, hydrating, organic, bitter, functional, spicy, sporty, extracted, or tea-based beverages, or just water—all designed (in a nutshell) to balance our overstressed bodies. Despite all the touted benefits, the main trend is the fizzle, aka carbonated drinks.11

Carbonation for both grown-ups and kids is dominating the beverage aisle. The question is, are these sparkling beverages damaging to teeth even if their nutrient profiles are RD-approved?

"Sparkling waters may be slightly more acidic in nature," explains Thomas C. Silver, DMD, MS, PA, a pediatric dentist in Saint Petersburg, Florida. "However, studies have shown that noncarbonated waters and sparkling waters have very similar effects on tooth enamel." As a pediatric dentist, Silver says that, "while my first recommendation is water, I do not have an issue with the marketing of fizzy options that are sugar-free to families who are looking for a flavored drink." Regarding the use of nonnutritive sweeteners for dental health, Silver says, "nonnutritive sweeteners (both intense and bulk sweeteners) have been shown to be noncariogenic. They're not metabolized to acids by oral microorganisms, thus they do not cause cavities." Bottom line: As part of a balanced daily intake of beverages, it's OK to consume carbonated varieties.

Navigating the 'Natural' Environment
With all of the many products available within the natural food category, it's difficult for dietitians to keep up with the latest introductions. "Often, smaller companies adopt and sell products online before they appear in mainstream supermarkets," Harris-Pincus says. "This makes it challenging for RDs to stay on the cutting edge and [be] aware of every new arrival."

To stay current, Harris-Pincus encourages colleagues to monitor new releases but pay attention to trends that last over time. "Some trends have continued in 2018, like gluten-free, dairy-free, and plant-based options."

The natural products category often features product improvements. "For example, more nutritious versions of gluten-free foods are emerging, including ingredients like sorghum, almond flour, and coconut flour," as well as less common ancient grains in breads, crackers, chips, and baked goods, Harris-Pincus says.

For example, Bay State Milling Company recently introduced HealthSense, its higher-in-fiber wheat flour at Natural Products Expos East and West. Agronomists used conventional methods to breed a higher-amylose wheat (ie, one with more resistant starch) to make this commonplace food product that can be swapped for white flour.

Even if new product releases are a moving target, RDs play a vital role in helping consumers navigate the natural foods category. "To stay relevant, I stay open to helping consumers find what they're looking for," Harris-Pincus says, adding that consumers want to improve their health in ways that resonate and make sense to them. The natural foods category messages can be aspirational and compelling, but it's our job to help consumers balance the hope of health with real benefits.

— Jenna A. Bell, PhD, RD, is a senior vice president and director of food and wellness for Pollock Communications in New York City. She works remotely and lives with her husband, two daughters, and two dogs in Saint Petersburg, Florida.

1. 'Natural' on food labeling. US Food and Drug Administration website. https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm456090.htm. Updated October 22, 2018. Accessed November 30, 2018.

2. Creswell J. Is it 'natural'? Consumers, and lawyers, want to know. The New York Times. February 16, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/16/business/natural-food-products.html. Accessed November 30, 2018.

3. Ingredient standards and guidelines. New Hope Network website. https://www.newhope.com/natural-products-expos-ingredient-standards-and-guidelines. Accessed November 25, 2018.

4. Wolfe RR. The underappreciated role of muscle in health and disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006;84(3):475-482.

5. Holeček M. Beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate supplementation and skeletal muscle in healthy and muscle-wasting conditions. J Cachexia Sarcopenia Muscle. 2017;8(4):529-541.

6. Juven. Abbott website. https://abbottnutrition.com/juven

7. myHMB website. https://myhmb.com

8. BASF launches PeptAIde in sports nutrition with state-of-the-art technology to modulate inflammation. BASF website. https://www.basf.com/global/en/media/news-releases/2018/11/p-18-363.html. Published November 6, 2018.

9. NEM. Stratum Nutrition website. http://www.stratumnutrition.com/ingredients/human/nem®

10. The plant kingdom flourishes. Nutraceutical Business Review website. https://www.nutraceuticalbusinessreview.com/news/article_page/The_plant_kingdom_flourishes/150161. Published December 14, 2018. Accessed December 20, 2018.

11. Shafer J. The standout drinks at Expo East? Beverages that sparkle. New Hope Network website. https://www.newhope.com/food-and-beverage/standout-drinks-expo-east-beverages-sparkle. Published September 25, 2018. Accessed December 1, 2018.