Omega-3 adds value to sluggish meal replacement products
Omega-3 has found its way into virtually all packaged food sectors – but, paradoxically, not into meal replacement products, whose consumers may be most in need of the magic nutrient. Euromonitor International highlights a prime opportunity for adding value to a sector with a patchy growth record.
Meal replacement products show poor growth in highly developed markets
The meal replacement product sector is made up of two categories – meal replacement slimming products and convalescence products. In 2007, the overall sector was worth US$4.9 billion in value sales, 75% of which was accounted for by meal replacement slimming products. Almost 80% of slimming products' category sales were generated in Western Europe and North America. In Western Europe, sales have been declining for three years running, while in North America, value growth was the lowest of all regions at 5% in 2007. For convalescence product, the picture is a similar one.
In highly developed markets, it is hard to increase volume sales, and one of the best ways of maintaining market share and boost value sales is by adding ingredients with health benefits to products. Omega-3 fatty acids are the perfect choice for manufacturers of meal replacement products for several reasons: there is a sound science base supporting their pivotal role in human health, consumer awareness of omega-3 has risen exponentially in the past couple of years, and increased supplier activity has driven down prices to a very reasonable level. Plus, omega-3 fatty acids and meal replacement products are a match made in heaven from a nutritional point of view.
During taxing times, the body needs more omega-3
In human nutrition, there are only two fatty acids, which are regarded as absolutely essential for survival: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a short-chain omega-3 fatty acid, and linoleic acid (LA), which belongs to the omega-6 category. The long-chain chain omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), found in high concentrations in oily fish, can be made in the body from ALA, and are hence not considered strictly “essential”.
However, the rate of conversion from ALA to EPA/DHA can be rather inefficient, and is often severely compromised during times of physical and mental stress, particularly while suffering or recovering from an illness. To satisfy the body's needs during such difficult periods, EPA and DHA are regarded by many nutrition experts as “conditionally essential”. This means that these long-chain omega-3 fatty acids need to be supplied through the diet (sometimes in the form of dietary supplements).
Slimming is stressful
When dieting, people generally aim to eat healthily, and some even aspire to the elusive goal of achieving “optimum nutrition”, a notion that has long been exploited by the slimming products industry. So far, the emphasis has been on supplying “all essential nutrients”, especially with regards to meal replacement slimming products. These products always include a complement of the two essential fatty acids (ALA and LA), but the addition of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA has largely been neglected by manufacturers.
This is a missed opportunity, as dieting, and particularly the kind of dieting, which relies heavily on meal replacement products, may potentially reduce overall nutrient intake. This in itself acts as a stressor on the body. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are needed for healthy fat and energy metabolism, and in the sports supplements domain, they have long been marketed as assisting in fat burning. On this basis alone, the addition of omega-3 fatty acids to meal replacement products makes perfect sense.
In addition – and as most slimmers will attest to – maintaining one's mental focus during dieting is absolute key for sticking to a diet. DHA is widely marketed as a brain health nutrient, helping to maintain focus and mental clarity, and this could easily be leveraged as a marketing platform for omega-3-enriched meal replacement slimming products.
Convalescence products enjoy endorsement by healthcare professionals
The principle of conditional essentiality applies even more strongly to convalescence products than it does to slimming products. During times of recovery from serious illness, or while still undergoing treatment, or when battling with a troublesome chronic condition, the body has elevated nutritional requirements, often combined with reduced appetite and difficulty in digesting regular meals. This is when convalescence products are indicated, as they help recovering individuals to keep up their energy intake while also being very easy to prepare and convenient to consume – they either come as ready-to-drink shakes in bottles or cans, or as powders in sachets.
Surprisingly, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (ie DHA and EPA) do not yet seem to feature in convalescence products, but this also means that a prime opportunity to add value exists. Convalescence products have a strong medical nutrition emphasis and are usually recommended/prescribed to patients by healthcare professionals, who are generally well informed about the benefits of omega-3. Dieticians, doctors, nurses and pharmacists are in an excellent position to educate their patients on the advantages of a well-formulated product containing long-chain omega-3s. Manufacturers should make it their priority to inform these health professionals about any kind of product innovation in this category.
Omega-3 fortification – the new industry standard for meal replacement products
The highly competitive environment in developed markets drives the food industry towards adding functional ingredients across virtually all sectors. However, outside of infant formula, only the meal replacement products sector shows serious promise for making omega-3 fortification the new industry standard in Western Europe and North America.
Potential for meal replacement products with added value also exists outside these two core geographies. Consumer awareness of omega-3 (and DHA in particular) is high in Asia Pacific, which, incidentally, is also a key growth region for meal replacement products. Value sales in the region are predicted to reach US$1.1 billion in 2012, a 43% increase from 2007 sales.
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