Hormel Foods, the 126-year-old consumer products company known for popular household staples like Skippy peanut butter and Jennie-O turkey, is making a name for itself in a seemingly unlikely place: the war on cancer.
Hormel Foods started developing its Vital Cuisine brand three years ago by partnering with nutritionists, dietitians, major cancer centers and the Cancer Nutrition Consortium. The company was able to learn more about how the disease affects eating, work with chefs who prepare and flavor patients' food, and meet with people affected by the life-changing illness. The line of ready-to-eat meals, nutrition shakes and protein powders that Hormel Foods started selling in late 2015 target the muscle, energy and weight issues cancer patients face when going through treatments to fight the disease.
“As a food company we’re not out to cure cancer. We’re out to help those going through the recovery journey from cancer.”
General manager of specialty products at Hormel Foods
“As a food company, we’re not out to cure cancer. We’re out to help those going through the recovery journey from cancer,” Mark Nellermoe, general manager of specialty products at Hormel Foods, told Food Dive about its Vital Cuisine products. “We 've got to be food first but deliver on those aspects like convenience and nutrition.”
While Hormel has amassed decades of expertise in everyday foods found on grocery store shelves, developing meals for cancer patients was challenging. Individuals often face a change in their nutritional and dietary needs, view food differently and live radically different lifestyles — making traditional food an often unrealistic option.
Among the obstacles in designing products for cancer patients, food can taste different than it did before the individual started chemotherapy, and cancer patients can often be too tired to cook a meal or go purchase the ingredients at the supermarket that they need to make their own. But at the same time, their body still needs essential nutrients — presenting challenges for food companies working to make these products.
A $15 billion market
Increasingly, food and beverage giants such as Hormel, Nestle and Danone are turning to nutritional therapy and medical foods as their core packaged businesses struggle amid changing consumer tastes that favor more organic, natural and fresh items.
And with good reason. The market for health-related products to treat a host of ailments using powders, food and beverages is huge — it's potentially worth an estimated $15 billion. They are unlikely to ever replace the traditional food businesses that have made these and other companies household names, but grabbing even a small slice of this niche market could go a long way toward boosting stagnating revenues.
Functional foods — or those that may have a positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition — remain a lucrative market as people look to maintain a healthier diet and the global population ages. According to the United Nations’ World Population Prospects, there were 901 million people aged 60 or over in 2015, or about 12% of the global population. That total is expected to surge to 2.1 billion by 2050.
These products could help combat rising healthcare costs and the growing number of chronic diseases, ranging from asthma and arthritis to Alzheimer's and alcoholism, that affect many of the world's more than 7.5 billion people.
Even before venturing into cancer, Hormel Foods spent nearly two decades developing products to help people facing a host of debilitating illnesses. The Minnesota-based company worked on food for patients who had trouble swallowing — such as people with advanced multiple sclerosis, stroke victims or individuals with brain injuries — as well as members of the public who suffered from unintended weight loss but still needed protein, calories and hydration in their diets.
Today, Hormel Health Labs sells an estimated 300 products that include nutritional mixes, calorie and protein supplements and pureed foods. Company officials declined to discuss specific revenue numbers with Food Dive, but said the business is growing as it introduces new items and the population that can benefit from using its products increases.
“We measure success through ... the amount of feedback, of people coming out and saying, 'This saved my life,' or, 'This made a huge difference for us while I was going through a tough time,'” Rick Williamson, a Hormel spokesman, told Food Dive. “It’s not about the sales — it’s about how we’re helping people.”
Brittany Weissman, an analyst at Edward Jones, said health is a good way for companies to diversify their businesses and smooth out the volatility that emerges in their commodity-driven food operations. It also provides some much-needed diversification from the center-of-the-aisle challenges plaguing their food operations.
“I’m not sure the market is big enough for it to become a big growth driver, but at the same time I do think it’s a nice complement to some of the business,” Weissman told Food Dive. “Anything that you can do that is in your wheelhouse but also provides some stability is a positive.”
'Jury is still out'
Officials in the medical community are far more cautious on the future of functional foods — namely, the possibility that they could someday be used to cure a specific disease. While there is reason for optimism, many caution there is currently too much uncertainty and potential risks that need to be clarified first.
Colleen Doyle, managing director of nutrition and physical activity with the American Cancer Society, said the “jury is still out” on whether functional foods with additional nutrients such as calcium or omega-3s can impact the illness. She urged a more measured approach when considering whether they can benefit people.
“I don’t see functional foods as being a ‘cure’ for cancer. We definitely need more research in this area.”
Managing director of nutrition and physical activity with the American Cancer Society
“I don’t see functional foods as being a ‘cure’ for cancer,” Doyle told Food Dive in an email. “We definitely need more research in this area.”
Nestle, the world’s largest food company, first entered healthcare nutrition in 1986 before forming the Nestle Health Science and the Nestle Institute of Health Sciences a quarter century later as part of its efforts to double-down on the fast-growing business.
Today, the company markets dozens of products, including formulas for infants who are allergic to cow’s milk, a nutritional beverage that helps individuals suffering from digestive challenges and a tube feeding pump that provides nutrients to people who are critically ill or having trouble swallowing.
To grow the business, the Swiss-based firm is conducting research to find solutions or nutritional therapies for a host of other health matters such as epilepsy, obesity, cancer, gastrointestinal issues and the loss of muscle that occurs as the body ages.
One such product that Nestle began conducting clinical trials on in 2016 is its Vitaflo nutritional drink. Evidence has shown that people with epilepsy that don’t respond to medication can reduce seizures with a ketogenic diet that is very high in fat and low in carbohydrates. But the unique diet is difficult sustain over the long term. Nestle hopes Vitaflo will not only taste good and be easy to use, but allow this diet to be more compatible for these individuals.
Nestle also has looked looked outside the company and entered into deals to support its efforts, including a partnership with Seres Therapeutics to develop products that help the digestive system. It has also helped fund clinical trials at Accera, a Colorado biotech company, that is testing medical food for patients with mild or moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Overall, Nestle has more than 160 collaborations with over 60 partners including external suppliers, universities and other companies.
“Personalized health science nutrition is about finding efficient and cost-effective ways to prevent and treat acute and chronic diseases in the 21st century,” Liz Caselli-Mechael, manager of corporate communications at Nestle, told Food Dive in an email. “We see ourselves playing a pioneering and leading role in this new industry, while at the same time keeping the necessary focus on Nestle’s extremely important food, beverages and nutrition business.”
Medical foods usually aren't required to be subjected to clinical trials or approval by regulators, but the Food and Drug Administration does monitor the products, says they need to be used under the guidance of a physician, and mandates that ingredients must be generally recognized as safe.
Ben Locwin, co-founder and president of Healthcare Science Advisors, said most diseases and disorders that don't require surgery could potentially be targets for medical foods. He said functional foods also contain bioactive nutrients, but typically in lower quantities. As a result, their effects are likely to be more prosaic than in medical foods.
“There are a lot of food innovations currently in the works in this industry,” said Locwin, who occasionally offers insight to the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists. “But I want the science to speak for itself by showing the products are safe and effective for particular targets and for a wide consumer base.”
The challenge, he said, is that the body strives for balance so it is hard to deviate and create certain biological effects through functional food consumption. Excess nutrients are either removed — making physiologically-relevant doses of certain nutrients difficult to achieve — or if the body can’t rid itself of them, creating a risk for nutrient toxicity.
Consumers will have to be cognizant of balancing their intake of functional foods to ensure the best likelihood of benefit with the fewest potential risks. In the case of medical foods specifically, Locwin has expressed concern that there was not enough evidence to back the efficacy of some products, or that others created a placebo-effect and may not have actually benefited the consumer.
“There's good reason for hope and excitement," Locwin said, while adding a caveat: “The overall likelihood is that they'll underperform expectations, but outperform general pessimism."