Super Ingredients vs. Super Fruits

No longer a notion, the ability of a beverage to provide something beyond refreshment has evolved into a highly profitable source of sales. While functionality is not the only ongoing storyline in the beverage industry, for many marketers, it is the most compelling.

But the notion of functionality carries heavy expectation; as the functional beverage becomes pervasive, the efficacy question is going to be asked more often, and the answer is going to have to come from the beverage itself as much as it does from any set of marketing materials.

And if the beverage is providing the answer, the quality of that answer is going to be dependent on the quality of the ingredients it relies on to provide its specific functionality. And those ingredients are increasingly – although not exclusively – coming from one of two camps: One set of beverages employs a set of vitamins, minerals, botanicals, proteins, amino acids, enzymes, and other carefully chosen and combined ingredients to fulfill a specific purpose. The other relies on a combination of juices or purees to provide those same ingredients in a more pristine state.

Beverage developers, marketers, and retailers who want to operate in the functional arena are going to have to decide how they want to achieve efficacy. In this issue, BevNET Innovation sought out leaders from both the Super Fruit and Super Ingredient schools to state the case for their own version of functionality.

Super Ingredients Are the Way to Go

By James Rouse, mix1

In order to provide consumers with multiple nutritional benefits in one single serving, the future of the functional beverage category must lie in the realm of beverages fortified by “super ingredients.” They are the key to providing the combination of quality, high levels of function, and they act in a synergistic manner to create a set of all-natural ingredients that can deliver against a consumer’s nutritional needs.

At our company, we know that functional beverages — drinks that offer added health and wellness benefits — have enjoyed exponential growth during the last few years and the category continues to increase, with expected sales to reach $54 billion in 2010. With more brands continuing to saturate this market, people are asking, “What benefits am I receiving by putting this into my body? What does one serving of this offer me? What’s my return on investment?” It’s this nutritional ROI that Super Ingredient based functional beverages are best able to provide.

The future of functional beverages lies in understanding what consumers are missing in their daily diets and formulating products that deliver against those needs. The time of day when a consumer intends to supplement his or her diet is an important part of the equation – such as mealtime, snack time, before or after exercise, or during a mental break. Consumers are busier than ever and planning for balanced nutrition throughout the day seems to be impossible for most. The majority of us wake up everyday with the intention of eating healthy, but we usually fall short. Instead, most people grab convenient options on the run under the impression they’re making a better choice. Unfortunately, many choices fall short on expectations.

What people are missing in their daily diets doesn’t come as much surprise: balanced nutrition based on the food group basics we’ve all been taught. We all need protein, antioxidants from fruits and vegetables, carbohydrates for energy, a good source of fiber, healthy fats and the right balance of vitamins and minerals. Ideally, we should get these benefits together in proper serving size portions throughout the day, as our bodies operate optimally when we consume balanced nutrients.

A big portion of the functional beverage market is targeted towards “Superfruits” and the benefit of antioxidants. I’m a big fan of antioxidants and the benefits that extensive research suggests they provide, and agree they should be part of any functional beverage.

However, when looking at antioxidant benefits, some juice brands – even Superfruits – will provide antioxidants equivalent to only one serving of fruits and veggies while many provide much less. Unfortunately, even at these low levels of antioxidant benefits, you also get an unbalanced source of carbohydrates or sugars that could spike your blood sugar unless you complement it with something to help balance the sugar release, like protein and/or fiber. And interestingly enough, most of the Super Fruit beverage brands tout how powerful their respective fruit is compared to their competitors, while very few discuss the actual benefits of only one serving to a consumer.In reality, the future of functionality will be based on delivering balanced nutrition with multiple nutritional benefits for specific usage occasions in a convenient way, in a product that meets consumers’ ever-discriminating taste standards. These products will also be conscious of potential negative ingredient impacts such as heavy carbohydrates or sugar levels. With the right mix of high-quality, all-natural ingredients, a product can deliver a high benefit to calorie ratio, and can also offer several different kinds of nutritional benefits at once.

In addition to efficacious levels and the right balance of ingredients, functional products should also highlight synergistic enhancements by combing specific ingredients. For example, we know that green tea’s antioxidant activity is enhanced when Vitamin C is part of the mix; therefore, we use both ingredients. The use of protein and fiber with carbs helps to manage blood sugar levels, which in turn helps with energy levels and satiety. Using a pre-biotic fiber and a heart healthy fat source promotes a better vitamin and mineral absorption efficiency.

Of course, it is important to remember that the source of ingredients is crucial – it is imperative that the ingredients being used are of the highest quality available. But when you use well-sourced and carefully-forumulated ingredients, your functional benefits can expand.

The bottom line is you measure functionality by the benefits one receives when putting something into the body. The future of this category is offering truly functional, quality ingredients at efficacious levels, while still keeping the serving size and calorie count down – a quick, efficient and effective functional beverage that truly delivers the “return on investment” that consumers are asking for. Balanced nutrition always has, and always will be a cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle.

When Functional Beverages Malfunction, We Look to Juice

By Palo Hawken, Bossa Nova

Juices can challenge the dominant paradigm of synthetically enhanced functional beverages, and capture a new, growing market demanding higher quality and quantifiable efficacy from healthy products.

Why? Synthetic vitamins might be the nutritional platform of today’s popular “healthy” functional beverages, but a growing body of medical research is challenging conventional wisdom about their efficacy. Meanwhile, new research validates what sounds to us like common sense: that plant-sourced vitamins work better than their synthetic cousins.

This functional superiority has been attributed to the complex family of micronutrients that always accompanies natural vitamins within their food matrix, such as in whole fruit or fruit juices. When vitamins are consumed in this form, beneficial interactions between vitamins and their related nutrients—or cofactors—occur. For example, nutrients like ascorbic acid and beta-carotene never occur in nature without their family of related micronutrient cofactors. Ascorbic acid needs the cofactors rutin, bioflavenoids, ascorbinogen and factors J, K and P to unlock its full potential to become whole vitamin C. Natural beta-carotene always occurs in vegetables and fruits along with other carotenoids to create benefits that add up to more than the sum of their parts.

In contrast, the body works hard to eliminate synthetic vitamins if important cofactors are not present, and in some cases even treats them as toxins and allergens. A recent Harvard study questions the effectiveness of synthetic vitamins and even suggests that ingredients like folic acid in high doses cause potential harm. Additional research linked regular consumption of these isolated vitamins to higher risks of cancer and other diseases. Vitamin-laced beverages often include synthetic beta-carotene, commonly derived from acetylene gas, alone without its cofactors—dramatically limiting its effectiveness as a vitamin A precursor.

Perhaps the most widely used functional ingredient in beverages, vitamin C can be added in either its whole-food form or a synthetic isolated form. These two different approaches illustrate the difference between the dominant method of fortifying functional beverages and the potential promised by the emerging whole-food approach.

Synthetic Ascorbic Acid’s Story
The journey of synthetic ascorbic acid (a.k.a. vitamin C), begins in a factory in southern China that synthesizes it from cornstarch, with the help of hydrochloric acid, over 20 chemical reactions, and acetone — nail polish remover. A second company adds this synthetic ascorbic acid, destined for the beverage industry, to a vitamin mixture known as a premix. Beverage companies purchase this batched multi-nutrient formula for pennies per serving to enrich their product with the ingredients needed to market the functional benefits they suggest their product provides. Within weeks, this ascorbic acid shows up in beverages on shelves in your local convenience store.

Plant-Based Vitamin C’s Story
In contrast to the story of industrial ascorbic acid, natural whole vitamin C begins its life in, say, camu-camu, a rainforest berry thought to contain the highest concentration of vitamin C of any fruit. As it develops, the young berry creates vitamin C through an enzymatic process along with dozens of other beneficial compounds called phytochemicals – these extra nutrients may be the key to optimized functionality of the target vitamin. When the berry is picked and juiced, the co-factors, fiber, minerals and soluble nutrients accompany the natural ascorbic acid in a ratio that closely resembles their composition in the whole fruit. When added to a beverage, this juice delivers all of the components that make up complex, whole vitamin C.The plant-based vitamin C is absorbed by the body in its most bioavailable form. What of the ascorbic acid? Synthetic nutrients pose a unique challenge to the body, which often does not recognize them or their value. The human body is so intelligent that it constantly adjusts to remedy nutritional deficits by attempting to make incomplete nutrients whole. When we consume synthetic ascorbic acid, our bodies immediately begin scavenging bones and tissue to complete the ascorbic acid by finding the missing critical metabolic compounds. From this perspective, synthetic vitamins can actually deplete the body of its vitamin stores. In the case of ascorbic acid, one recent study even suggests that without its cofactors it damages the body by hardening the arterial walls.

I have worked with a number of talented food scientists who were actively developing “vitamin-enhanced” beverages. They usually qualify their work privately with statements like, “I know that this doesn’t really work.” When I probe further, they reluctantly admit their concern stems from both application and efficacy points of view. In one study to understand shelf stability, 3500 IU of vitamin A was added to a beverage and placed in a visi-cooler common in convenience stores. Within seven days the vitamin A level had dropped to 1000 IU. Even if they did function properly to improve health, the premix vitamins commonly used in today’s functional beverages have the reputation for a very short shelf life.

The Future of Functionality?

So are all synthetic ingredients bad and nature-made good? Of course not. Is it easier and less expensive to fortify with synthetic vitamins? Yes. But does ease-of-manufacture rationalize a nutritionally compromised product? Not to me.

It is too early in the evolution of the development of the healthy, functional beverage category to make predictions, but colorful packaging, fantasy flavors, catchy names, and the suggestion of nutritional benefits have so far been enough to build the category to over a billion dollars. I do believe that there is significant growth ahead, but as a beverage innovator, I ask myself if I will simply ride the existing wave or actively shape the direction of the next one. At any given point in history, our ability to create solutions is only as good as the accumulated knowledge to date. It takes some measure of humility to acknowledge that what we know today about nutrition will appear in the future to be very simplistic. But what we can say with certainty is that nutrition from food works, and that nutrition from anything else may or may not. In this sense, taking the side of food source nutrients, while seemingly the conservative approach, is also the right next one.