Weekly comment

Innovation: the fast before the feast

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Health claims, Nutrition, European union

Last week's Vitafoods trade show highlighted a drop in ingredient
innovation with many companies placing the blame at the door of
Europe's evolving health claims legislation.

While the work-in-progress nutrition and health claims regulation may be stifling innovation, its resolution is imminent, potentially heralding a new age of healthy ingredient development. For now though there is a most definite dip in activity. The slow-down ​Vitafoods International is widely regarded as Europe's premier event for ingredients destined for the food supplements, functional foods and cosmeceuticals industries. Most of Europe's major suppliers exhibit their wares at the Geneva convention, along with an ever-expanding international contingent. It has typically been a hotbed of new ingredient launches. That couldn't be said of 2007's edition. In fact, innovation was conspicuous by its absence. Large suppliers that have launched new ingredients year-in-year-out in the past had no new offerings. Some didn't exhibit. Others emphasised aspects of their business such as green programmes, packaging developments, new joint ventures and branding initiatives. The state of innovation ​Innovation occurs erratically - lulls are always going to occur - but it appears something more pervasive is affecting the European healthy food ingredients industry at this point in time. In Geneva, concerned parties fingered the European Union's health claims legislation as the culprit more than a few times. The contention runs that the EU Nutrition and Health Claims regulation, to coin its official title, is applying the brakes on innovation because companies are less willing to invest in the science, marketing and formulation work required to successfully back an ingredient in a climate where it is not clear in which way the ingredient's benefits can be communicated on both a B2B and B2C level. Which is not to say health claims are the only culprit as Udi Alroy, vice president of global marketing and sales at Israeli-based carotenoid supplier, Lycored, told NutraIngredients.com at Vitafoods. He noted the stifling effect of the increasing cost of ingredient development as research demands spiral and turnkey programmes that go way beyond mere raw material supply become more prevalent. Moreover, a certain saturation of the ingredients sector has occurred as two decades-plus of intensive research and development has raised the bar on true innovation. But it is the uncertainty caused by the health claims regulation that is provoking the biggest blips on the 'threats to innovation' radar. Brake on innovation - or break in innovation? ​ But maybe this is not such a bad thing. The health claims legislation has been one of the most fiercely debated and amended pieces of legislation to have passed through the EU legislative system. Its text was formally altered more than 600 times over many years as it passed between the EU's legislative bodies, working groups and member states. Aspects of it are yet to be resolved such as nutrient profiling, which seeks to control which products can make health claims depending on their overall healthiness. Resolution on this matter is expected in early 2009. But at least the main project - to establish a central registry of scientifically-backed nutrition and health claims that can be used on food and food supplement products throughout the EU's 27 Member States - is close to being realised. The European Commission has said the thousands of nutrition and health claim submissions it received from industry will be processed by January 31, 2010 - little more than 18 months away. With a potentially liberating published list of claims that may run to hundreds or thousands, 2010 promises to be a very interesting year. Coupled with nutrient additions to the 2002 Food Supplements Directive positive list - a process running to a similar timetable and which promises similarly liberating benefits in the area of formulation - long-standing areas of uncertainty are approaching legislative resolution that will greatly expand consumer choice for the EU's 500 million citizens. Innovation feast? ​ Perhaps the current situation should be viewed as a lull in innovation - a famine before a feast of sorts - that, when viewed from the perspective of EU rulemaking timeframes, is not such a long time to pause. Take a company like Danish probiotics specialist Chr. Hansen which has submitted a swathe of health claims for some of the hundreds of probiotic strains it has researched to varying extents. If all or some of them are approved, Chr Hansen is set to ramp up its backing of those strains from marketing to further research to formulation. From herbs to sterols to fatty acids, it's a situation that is replicated across industry. Waiting game ​ Some outright reject the pan-European regulatory project as being unhelpful to consumers, insensitive to regional difference, destructive to industry and ultimately unworkable. But in the shape of the nutrition and health claims legislation, industry is about to get a taste of the EU-wide workability of a significant piece of legislation that has undeniable potential to deliver widespread rewards. If consumer use, understanding and faith in nutrition and health claims increases as a result, industry can only benefit. In the mean time, functional foods and food supplements manufacturers needn't feel let down by their ingredients suppliers for failing to deliver on novelty. They may be playing a waiting game that could be about to yield a level of innovation that may exceed any the healthy foods and ingredients industry has yet seen. Shane Starling is the editor of NutraIngredients.com. He has been writing about the nutrition industry for more than seven years. ​ If you'd like to comment on this article please email Shane at shane.starling@decisionnews.com.

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