NIU's functional foods forum: Sports nutriton, snacks, beverages seen as hottest categories

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Functional food Nutrition

NIU's functional foods forum: Sports nutriton, snacks, beverages seen as hottest categories
Functional foods and beverages are the thin edge of the innovation wedge and are growing by leaps and bounds. Panelists in a recent online forum hosted by NutraIngredients-USA laid out the trends in this booming sector.

Panelist on the forum included Jeff Hilton, chief marketing officer of Utah-based consultancy BrandHive, Jason Sapsin, an attorney with Fox Rothschild, Eric Schnell, CEO of brand development firm MetaBrand, Risa Schulman, PhD, who operates her own consulting firm TapRoot, and Kantha Shelke, PhD, a consultant and principal in the firm Corvus Blue,

First off, we asked the panelists, what is a functional food?  It can mean a lot of things depending on what angle you view the category from.

Kantha Shelke PhD

“Functional foods is really an industry insider term.  People in the retail sector and consumers at large have no idea that it even exists.  But they do know about foods and food ingredients that provide a health benefit beyond that is provided beyond that is provided by traditional nutrients,” ​Shelke said.

“This concept of functionality in a food or beverage is one that consumers are catching on and interpreting for themselves,”​ said Hilton.

“A functional food is a food that has an inherent health benefit that goes beyond its regular nutritive value.  A example of that is superfruits that have flavonoids in them. Pomegranate for example has a tannin group that gives it an extra benefit in terms of cardiovascular health. This is another angle that developers are taking, to add an ingredient that has research behind it to add a benefit,”​ Schulman said.

Jeff Hilton

As for recent innovations, organic, non-GMO and the inclusion of protein was mentioned by panelists.

“Now what we are seeing is that you almost have to be organic to be on trend, and as for what’s next, you will have to be non GMO.  Zero calorie is a trend.  How to reduce calorie content and do that in a natural way will be something that formulation teams will continue to work on,” ​Schnell said.

Sports nutrition, snacks

Risa Schulman PhD

“We are seeing a ton of innovation in sports nutrition.  A lot of it is driven by consumer lifestyles, with Americans being more active in all age ranges,” ​Hilton said. “We seeing the emergence of proteins, especially in vegetarians. Protein drives at all age levels, and it is kind of the super ingredient of the moment.”

Both Schnell and Hilton mentioned that snack foods, in addition to sports nutrition, is a hot category that developers are looking at to pump up in terms of functional benefits. It’s a way to add health benefits to a category that has traditionally been thought of as laden with foods that are not good for you.  But Schnell said this development has to be handled with care.

Eric Schnell

“Smart marketing always has to go hand-in-hand with smart formulation.  If you are taking a candy bar and trying to marketing it as a clean and nutritious you have to make sure that the ingredients will back up those claims.  If you are using ingredients that will back up structure/function claims, that is obviously one way to stand out in snack foods,” ​Schnell said.

“Even fast food restaurants are jumping in with the concept of the ‘fifth meal,’ ”​ Shelke said.

Health claims

Jason Sapsin

As far as staying with law with what claims might be made, Sapsin said there is much confusion about the consent decrees the Federal Trade Commission has come to with some companies that call for two well-designed, placebo-controlled trials to back up health claims on foods and dietary supplements.

“There are some areas where the law gives us a greater degree of flexibility than frankly some of the regulators would like. There is no legal requirement for two well-designed clinical studies.  I tell clients to look at the totality of evidence. Is one study good enough to back the claim you want to make? Or is there sufficient uncertainty in the science that you would be well advised to do another one?” ​Sapsin said.

To listen the the entire forum, click here​.

The NutraIngredients-USA Trends in Functional Foods Forum ​was supported by the following leading functional food ingredient suppliers:


Sabinsa​: A manufacturer, supplier and marketer of herbal extracts, cosmeceuticals, minerals, dietary supplements and specialty fine chemicals for the nutritional, cosmetic, pharmaceutical and food industries.


Jost Chemical​: A manufacturer of high purity specialty chemicals for the pharmaceutical, nutritional, food, and other specialty markets. As an FDA registered manufacturer that operates under bulk pharmaceutical cGMP's, Jost Chemical produces high quality chemicals with lot-to-lot consistency that meet USP/EP/ACS/FCC specifications and Kosher and Halal certifications where applicable.


AMT Labs ​and Kelatron ​have over 50 years of combined experience providing high quality chelated minerals and custom formulations to meet customer-specific needs in the nutritional supplement, sports nutrition, and functional food segments.

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