Predicting ingredient trends might seem like a futile art in this fast-moving age of TikTok fads with its sudden penchant for flavoured pickles, tinned fish, and fruit roll-up ice creams. However, industry observers have been closely watching consumer demand and are forecasting everything from continued attention for adaptogens through to increased interest in natural sweeteners and the dwindling presence of cellulosics in plant-based meat.

Health drives rise of once-niche ingredients

The now perennial interest in health and wellness remains central to any forecasts for what ingredients could drive product development.  

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US retailer Whole Foods Market, for example, sees awareness of adaptogens continuing to grow in the coming year, expecting more food products to incorporate ingredients such as ashwagandha, Cordyceps and Lion’s Mane into popular foods and beverages, including coffee. US companies such as Four Sigmatic and Cerebelly appear ahead of the curve in this respect, using Chaga, Lion’s Mane and Maitake mushrooms for their apparently neurocognitive, anti-inflammatory and prebiotic properties.  

Mitsue Konishi, lead food analyst, at GlobalData, Just Food’s parent company notes CBD has now reached the limits of its expansion in light of regulatory uncertainty. Natural, unregulated adaptogens, however, provide a far easier alternative global route to market, she says.  

The adaptogen ashwagandha, in particular, has soared in popularity over recent months, thanks in part to TikTok (where the hashtag #Ashwagandha has to date garnered some 1.1bn views). Early research suggests the extract can help ease stress-related neuropsychiatric disorders such as anxiety and boost testosterone levels in men, among other benefits.  

“We are seeing Gen Z really taking note of how various ingredients play into their mental health while older consumers are generally more focused on physical health benefits”, Beth Nieman Hacker, global insights director at Tate & Lyle, tells Just Food. “Today, ingredient providers need to meet this consumer preference for ingredients that have multiple benefits by investing in research to find robust evidence showing the impact they can have.”

Demand for personalisation

Beyond adaptogens, nootropics and ingredients targeting enhanced cognition, energy and immunity are also “pretty hot” in the area of wellness, Hamish Renton, managing director at UK-based international food and drink consultancy HRA Global, says. 

The emergence of “nutrition stacks” (where supplements are combined to create an “entourage effect”) is also interesting, Renton explains, insofar as it requires lower volumes of ingredients but can still create new, more powerful effects when used synergistically. He cites the combined use of vitamins D3 and K2, which facilitates calcium absorption.  

This trend has been fuelled by the rise of personalised nutrition – heralded by the likes of UK-founded Zoe, a company set up by Prof. Tim Spector of King’s College London. “[In the UK], you can’t get much on the NHS anymore, so there’s a big aftermarket in blood tests and nutritional panels,” Renton says. These tests create greater consumer awareness of deficiencies, driving demand for fortified products that address specific nutritional deficits. 

Rem3dy Health, a UK start-up offering personalized nutrition, has received funding from Japanese food and beverage giant Suntory Holdings, is an example of a company taking supplementation one step further. The company behind the Nourished brand uses patented 3D-printing technology to produce personalised nutrition stack gummies from 32 nutrient options – including folic acid, vitamins A through E, iron, beta-glucan, ashwagandha and milk thistle. 

For now, however, the so-called “semi-personalisation” market remains the strongest area of growth, unimpeded by full personalisation’s large number of SKUs and production complexities.  

The semi-personalised market has been typified by the rise in meal suppliers such as Lions Prep and Chefly, and meal kit companies such as HelloFresh and Gousto. 

At the Growth Asia Summit in September, Mikio Aoki, a senior general manager in Suntory’s Future Business Development department, said: “At this point in time, semi-personalisation is what is really strong – in Japan, for example, where there is a Y903bn (US$6.07bn) health foods market that is showing steady growth. The demand for personalisation is increasing but most services from foods to healthcare to sports to skincare are semi-personalised. 

“So even though “full personalisation” is likely to be required in the future, enabled by data and 3D food printers, the hybrid strategy now is stronger and mostly offered via online services.”

A shift towards natural sweeteners?

Aspartame returned to the headlines this year with the published findings of two World Health Organization studies into its safety. The sweetener was deemed “possible carcinogen” but can be consumed safely within previously recommended guidelines. The classification places aspartame in the same category as aloe vera and caffeic acid (commonly found in tea or coffee). 

Nevertheless, will the health and wellness trend, alongside the recent headlines around aspartame, also push out artificial sweeteners? Renton is not so sure. “I think it will spur the move towards natural sweeteners but, because it’s a really heated scare from the 1980s, and this is about the ninth time that it has come around, the question is: when will it start to make a difference?”  

The challenges of using alternative ingredients centre on taste and cost. Aspartame roughly costs $10,500 per metric tonne, while stevia is priced at around $60,000. The different chemical compounds also create different flavours, ruling out one-to-one replacements.  

However, interest in natural alternatives such as stevia, inulin, and oligofructose does seem to be growing.  

Earlier this month, US ingredients provider Ingredion reported strong demand for its “bioconverted stevia solutions” – which it attributed to growing government and consumer concerns about obesity and diabetes.  

“In [Ingredion’s] sugar reduction category, we continued to experience strong volume growth and expanded PureCircle [the company’s portfolio of stevia flavour modifiers and sweeteners] margins,” Ingredion CEO James Zallie said on the company’s third-quarter earnings call.  

Ingredients giant Kerry also reported “strong performance” in its patented Tastesense salt and sugar reduction technologies this year, while Tate & Lyle reported a 4% decrease in its volumes of its artificial sweetener sucralose in its most recent annual report.

“In our own proprietary research, we see that consumers are more aware of and have their perceptions of different LNCS (low and no calorie sweeteners), with a greater attraction to plant-based options, which is why we offer a broad range to meet different tastes and preferences,” Papao Saisnith, senior marketing and innovation director at Tate & Lyle, tells Just Food.  

To stay abreast of this trend, Tate & Lyle expanded its natural sweetener portfolio in July with the launch of Tasteva Sol – a patented stevia technology, designed to help companies solve stevia’s solubility challenges in food and beverages, while delivering on consumer demand for healthier calorie-reduced products.

Reassessing plant-based meat

The market for plant-based proteins has encountered some significant headwinds over the past year, with pressure on sales in markets including the US and the UK, leading to some companies going out of business.  

One of the common criticisms levelled at plant-based meat products is their dependence on saturated fats, highly-processed cellulosics such as methylcellulose, and caramel colouring – the manufacture of which can sometimes lead to the formation of methylimidazole, classified in 2012 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as "possibly carcinogenic to humans”.

Moreover, consumer research platform GWI has suggested waning interest in vegan diets. It said a survey of more than 50,000 consumers in four European markets showed a 29% fall in people describing themselves as vegan in the first quarter of 2023 versus the opening three months of 2021.

Nevertheless, the same research said those identifying as “flexitarian” rose 11% over the same period – and it’s this market the rush of companies that have entered the plant-based meat market in recent years have said they want to target. The challenge will be convincing them to return to your product after it trying it once. 

In its research, GWI suggested flexitarians are more likely to be interested in high-protein items and health, and less interested in eco-friendly credentials, than the former. For this reason, faux meat companies may start to refresh their branding to highlight nutritional advantages and sensory credentials. Some, like UK-based This, already are. 

In a similar vein, GlobalData’s 2023 Q2 consumer survey found that a “clean label” image is more important to consumers than high-tech artificial formulations, with 58% associating “natural” with “real” ingredients” and 49% associating it with “free from synthetic ingredients”. 

US retailer Whole Foods says it’s “seeing new and emerging protein-forward products with mushrooms, walnuts, tempeh and legumes in place of complex meat alternatives”. A significant challenge, however, is replicating the mouthfeel and taste of meat.  

Companies such as Israel-based start-up Meala, however, claims to be breaking new ground: the company is using naturally-occurring biocatalysts that can be used with a range of plant proteins to create meaty textures and juices, replacing both methylcellulose and hydrocolloids. Ingredient heavyweight Cargill is also innovating in this area, having filed patents earlier this year for meat substitutes free of methylcellulose.  

“The key to plant-based and other health-driven formulations such as low sugar will be to balance food technology with natural ingredients,” Hannah Cleland, a food analyst at GlobalData, says.