by Natasha Horton and Mark Tallon, Business Insights

The scale of the obesity problem can be considered as an epidemic. In the U.S., the prevalence of obesity doubled among adults between 1980-2004. In 2008, there were 208 million people who were either overweight or obese. According to some projections, 80% of American adults will be overweight or obese by the year 2022, by which time the healthcare costs of obesity will have likely exceeded $500 billion per year. It is no exaggeration to suggest that weight management is both the single most important ethical issue for manufacturers and the most obvious untapped growth opportunity.

Consumers Unsure of Claims
Consumers do want to lose weight. According to a recent International Food Information Council (IFIC) poll, consumer concern about weight increased over the past two years. In 2008, 75% of respondents in the U.S. cited their weight as a concern, in comparison to 66% in 2006. Some 57% of consumers are trying to lose weight--a key factor driving growth in the $52 billion diet foods and beverages market. Over a quarter of all new products launched in the foods and beverages’ space last year were aimed at some form of weight management.

The problem for many consumers is that most weight management products do not bring about the right outcome--helping them achieve a healthy weight. Furthermore, according to a Business Insights survey last year, only one third of consumers in the U.S. find product health claims trustworthy. This is actually higher than in much of Europe. In France, for example, just 16% of consumers believe health claims. The issue of health claims is particularly acute in weight management, where consumers have been bombarded with thousands of advertisements for pills, products, food, drinks, books and services that all promise the solution to the problem of losing weight.

However, things are changing. Health claims are becoming much more difficult to substantiate to the satisfaction of regulators and consumers alike. In September this year, Dannon reportedly settled a lawsuit in the U.S. relating to claims made on its Activia brand. The settlement requires Dannon to refund Activia consumers from a $35 million fund it has been required to establish. The Dannon case is an interesting precedent: among food and drink manufacturers, Dannon arguably has one of the better programs to substantiate its claims. In Europe, Dannon (Danone) is coming under a lot of attention from regulatory bodies for claims made around the idea of “immunity.” The effect of attacks on Dannon’s health claims by consumers and regulators alike is a clear signal to manufacturers: the days of poorly substantiated claims are limited.

Backed by new legislation (Article 13), the European Food Safety Authority has evaluated the scientific evidence for more than 523 health claims, of which it found only one third had sufficient scientific evidence behind them. In the U.S., two main governmental bodies, the FTC and the FDA, are mandated to enforce laws outlawing “unfair or deceptive practice” and ensure consumers receive accurate information about all health food and dietary supplements. 

At the moment, the lack of enforcement and the high volume of non-compliant labels and associated marketing materials often leaves consumers confused. Consumers are relying less on nutritional information on package labels, when making purchase decisions, and looking for stronger, often health-based (disease reduction/medicinal), claims. One solution for manufacturers was to use more generic logos, using wording such as “better for you,” or imagery denoting weight-loss or body-shaping effects. In September 2007, the FDA announced a public hearing concerning the use of symbols to communicate nutritional information and nutritional impact on labels.

Of 26 leading active ingredients assessed in Business Insights’ new report on weight management, 20 had no clinical data showing weight loss in humans, and 12 (46%) had one (or fewer) human trials on their product. All of the products/ingredients analyzed directly or implicitly indicate a weight-loss effect from such branded ingredients. It may be possible to justify the use of some of the branded ingredients as “supportive to weight management,” based on mechanism alone. However, many of the study designs are not constructed in a way to truly test this hypothesis. In short, substantiated claims for weight management are some distance off.

A New Focus on Satiety
For manufacturers with the capability to fund and manage comprehensive R&D programs, there is a massive opportunity to “own the benefit” around weight management. Regulatory and consumer pressures are handing the advantage to companies that can substantiate their claims, manage the R&D process efficiently and, ultimately, enable a rapid and compliant market launch. One approach is to assess products and ingredients more along a pharmaceutical model--by using a simple framework to assess product development portfolios by risk. (See chart “Risk and Market Attractiveness.”)

Underlying the innovation and product development in weight management, there is a noticeable shift from stimulants and an increased focus on satiety (hunger management) and absorption (e.g., fat and carbohydrate blockers).

Satiety is a powerful concept on a number of levels, especially in relation to foods and beverages, as consumers view it as a natural function of dietary intake. Additionally, many of the options that can enhance satiety (fiber, proteins) are macronutrients that consumers hear about or see on a daily basis. As such, these are often perceived as better for the body than chemical ingredients.

Multiple Claims and Holistic Positionings
Over the next 2-4 years, Business Insights expects to see an increasing number of foods and beverages utilizing claims of weight management tied into the uses of different forms of fiber and protein. Whey and psyllium are sources of protein and fiber, which have increasing levels of scientific support in relation to satiety. When combined, they could offer multiple structure-function claims in relation to the maintenance of lean tissue, as well as decreased appetite. There are several additional ingredients currently under trial, which embody this shift away from stimulants. These include:
* Satiety: Phenylethylamine, evodiamine, N-oleoyl-phosphatidyl-eth-anolamine, N-acyl phosphatidylethanolamines, long-chain fatty acids and potato extract.
* Absorption: Cassia nomame, catalpic acid, chicoric acid, choline L-bitartrate, chlorogenic acid, Nopal cactus and potato extract.

The future of the weight management market will change radically in the next five years. It will be more regulated, have fewer players and see more dominance from large manufacturers, have a much stronger biotech/pharma influence and, quite possibly, in the short mid-term, be positioned as very premium. Despite the current applications in foods and beverages, many of the weight management ingredient options in food and drinks are cost-restrictive. As a result, an estimated 90% of all functional weight management ingredients find uses in dietary supplements, rather than in foods and beverages. A more pharma-led model, based around proprietary ingredients and substantiated health claims, will inevitably bring higher costs to the consumer.

In the short-term, new dietary supplements will simply replace older ones. In the foods and drinks market, the clearest opportunity for manufacturers is to position weight management as a more holistic solution--about managing hunger--rather than a medicalized intervention. In common with the big trends apparent elsewhere in the market, consumers continue to be attracted by products that have provable benefits, are more natural, and are manufactured and sourced ethically.

Because measurable revolution in weight management will come from substantiated claims, the major shift will be R&D-led, driven by brand ownership of an ingredient or benefit. The Benecol model of “owning the niche” will predominate, which will inevitably cause a shake-out in “me-too brands,” and products which make vague or generic claims. In effect, the difficulties around developing a brand backed by substantiated research present a challenge, but also one of the most significant innovation opportunities available in the highly mature U.S. food and drinks sector.  pf

This article was based on a 2009 Business Insights Report titled, “Innovation in Weight Management: Novel Ingredients, Regulatory Challenges and Go-to-market Strategies.” The report includes obesity statistics and the financial impact in North America and worldwide; consumer trend information; weight management science and application, including satiety, thermogenesis, absorption, stimulants and metabolic modifiers; regulatory challenges and opportunities in weight management; branded ingredient options for weight management; and novel ingredients and future applications. For more content and order information, go to http://bit.ly/4ityZH.