The food and beverage industry has been recently delving into "medical foods," and foods that are formulated to meet the specific needs of patients, such as those with cancer. Medical foods are the delivery mechanism for medical treatment. Medical foods " … feature distinctive nutritional requirements, based on scientific principles …" which is a partial definition developed by the FDA.
The opportunities in the medical foods segment are growing; the market is estimated to be worth $15 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal. How best can ingredient manufacturers partner with major companies to provide foods with medicine, or extra nutrients to balance nutrition and supply calories to cancer patients?
Large food companies, including Nestle and Hormel, are making investments in R&D and product lines to meet medical and nutritional needs. Nestle is digging deep into medical foods in order to be well positioned for the future. It is developing foods such as prescription-based powders and drinks to treat diseases, according to The Wall Street Journal. Nestle has put forth a $500 million budget to support medical foods research through 2021. This includes $1 million worth of machinery to analyze human DNA at a lab in Lausanne, Switzerland. The idea is to develop personalized programs for patients.
In recent years, Nestle has made acquisitions of and formed partnerships with medical food companies to support its efforts. An example is Pamlab, acquired in 2013, which makes products for use under medical supervision for brain and metabolic health.
Hormel has developed the Vital Cuisine line, which are not medical foods. These instead target muscle loss and weight loss due to cancer-related therapies, providing proteins, calories, and hydration. The line includes ready-to-eat meals, nutrition shakes and whey protein powders.
Rao said Hormel developed the product line with experts from the Cancer Nutrition Consortium, along with chefs, to provide nutrient and protein-rich foods. Hormel's products are the first products certified by the CNC.
Hormel has plans to expand the line. For the shakes, Hormel has taken out the metallic components that come through vitamins and minerals. "Most of the patients are on a multivitamin or supplements so they don't need additional vitamins and minerals from their food or beverages," Chet Rao, business development manager, Hormel Specialty Foods, told Food Dive. "It is important to focus on protein, calories and hydration."
The company worked with several partners to create the nutrition line, including a supplier to develop a unique source of vegetarian protein.
"As far as challenges, getting the science right and also gaining trust in the health care profession would seem key," Kara Nielsen, independent food trendologist, told Food Dive in an email. "Ingredient manufacturers should keep up with research in medical science and possibly connect with research universities to get engaged, either to support research or to gain key knowledge."
Nielsen added the growing nutritional space is a way for large food companies to create a line of business and health-focused products, activities which present opportunities for ingredient manufacturers to become involved in the development of the products.
"This also shows the continued acceptance of the notion of food as medicine, which is quite common in other parts of the world, but viewed differently here," Nielsen added.
Although medical foods are monitored by the FDA, they do not have to go through the long R&D and clinical trial process pharmaceuticals do, which removes barriers to entry.
In May, the FDA posted the final guidance to "Frequently Asked Questions About Medical Foods: Second Edition." In a statement, the FDA emphasized medical foods are for patients that cannot properly ingest, digest, absorb, or metabolize regular food or nutrients. They also provide nutrition to those who require special attention beyond an ordinary diet.