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Nutra-pharma to converge for functional foods, says analyst

By staff reporter , 08-Jan-2007

As the food industry is embracing technologies that have until now been the preserve of pharmaceuticals, such as nutrigenomics, metabolomics and nanotechnology, global regulations are being more closely aligned between the two categories of health products, according to Business Insights.

As the name suggests, nutraceuticals are products that offer health benefits through nutrition. The market researcher says the discovery of food ingredients with "pharma-like" properties, such as plant sterols to lower cholesterol, is opening up new markets for healthy food products.

The two industries are becoming more aligned in their approach to consumer health. But the blurring of the boundaries is not total. "While both industries are now aiming to provide products that prevent disease, treating disease remains the primary pursuit of the pharma industry," says Business Insights in its new report Next-Generation Nutraceuticals. Hand-in-hand with the developments come new global regulations over nutraceutical labelling and health claims, in some respects posing a threat to the industry and in others offering opportunities. For instance, the new European health and nutrition claims and fortified foods regulations entered into force in late December, and discussions are underway about implementation.

The setting of maximum levels for vitamins and minerals as part of the fortified foods legislation and the 2002 food supplements directive. Parallel measures may be taken for other bioactive substances in the future.

Changes are also afoot in Japan and the US, and the upshot is likely to be a greater need for clinical trials to back up efficacy. While this involves expense for companies, positive results should help boost confidence in functional foods, and help grow the market.

One interesting facet of the shifting approach to health care is that some of the companies have a finger in both pharma- and the nutra- pies. For instance, Canada-based Forbes Medi-Tech is conducting clinical trials on a cholesterol-lowering drug, as well as offering plant sterols to the food industry.

Moreover, according to Business Insights companies like BASF and Chr Hansen are fostering stronger links with the pharmaceutical industry. Nutrigenomics and personalised nutrition are tipped to be a powerful force for the next generation of functional foods and beverages "mirroring pharmacogenomic and personalized medicine developments in the pharmaceutical industry".

This is an area in which Sciona, the maker of a personalised nutrition and health testing kit sold at retail in the US, is already carving a niche - and its innovation has not gone unnoticed by big market players; DSM announced last year that its venturing arm is to provide $6.5m (€5.4m) in follow-on funding to Sciona, making it a major shareholder.

The report values the combined European and US functional foods market at $26.4bn (€20.3bn at today's exchange rates) in 2005, with continuing compound annual growth rate of 4.4 per cent driven by consumers' acceptance of products and their desire to self-medicate.

Beyond ingredients themselves, the report also analyses their take-up by major food companies Nestle, Ajinomoto, Danone, Coca Cola and others. In Unilever's functional category, for instance, 77.8 per cent of products are cited as being aimed at heart health in 2006, with energy making up 11.1 per cent and immunity, weight control, cosmeceuticals and digestion 2.8 per cent each.

According to Business Insights the total Europe and US market for heart health food and drinks was US$5.4bn (€4.1bn) in 2005, with a 2010 prediction of $7.4bn ($5.6bn). The comparable figures for heart health pharmaceuticals are $84bn (€64.8bn) and $105bn (€80.8bn) respectively.

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