KANSAS CITY — The ongoing pandemic has sparked consumer interest in products that promise a range of benefits, from immune system support to stress relief. Sales of functional foods and beverages in the United States reached $83 billion last year, up 6.8% year over year, according to Nutrition Business Journal. A Kerry Group survey found that two-fifths of shoppers bought more functional foods in 2021 than they did in 2020.
Emerging brands are tapping into the rising demand for functional foods. A number of uses contain ingredients such as adaptogens, nootropics, vitamins and minerals that target the growing appetite for staples with added benefits.
Chew on it
When Mathew Thalakotur’s health routine didn’t last, he considered chewing gum.
“I used to always forget to take my vitamins, so I decided to improve a habit I already had,” said the Seattle-based founder of Mighty Gum, a chewing gum brand fortified with beneficial botanicals.
A consumer products veteran with previous stints at Coca-Cola Co. and Procter & Gamble, Mr. Thalakotur worked with medical professionals, herbalists and formulators to develop sugar-free gum with a blend of ingredients to support immune health. Drawing from global healing traditions, the brand contains Ashwagandha from Ayurvedic medicine, Elderberry from European folk medicine and Reishi Mushroom from Chinese medicine, as well as vitamins and zinc. The gum has a berry mint flavor and is made using a patented cold compression process that protects the nutrients during the manufacturing process.
Mr. Thalakotur’s early research found that of the 60% of consumers who buy conventional supplements, about half forget to use them consistently.
“People just don’t like swallowing pills, or they don’t like how much sugar is in gummy bears,” he added. “Mighty Gum is a sugar-free way to add vitamins to your routine by doing something you probably already do; 165 million Americans chew gum regularly.”
After over a year of product iterations, Mighty Gum debuted two and a half years ago, before the first onset of the pandemic.
“The first two months have been really quiet,” said Mr. Thalakotur, who has a full-time job to support his family and the business. “As May and June 2020 rolled around, people began to focus on ways to boost their immune health. That’s when it started.”
Today, Mighty Gum is sold online at http://www.mightygum.com and in several hundred retail locations, coffee shops, juice bars and wellness labs. The brand has become popular in the biohacking community, sparking a growing interest in self-experimentation to improve health and vitality.
Later this year, Mighty Gum will add a second ginger-mint flavored offering focused on digestive support. The new product, inspired by conversations with consumers, “will take Mighty Gum to the next level,” said Mr. Thalakotur.
“I want to keep expanding into functional spaces,” he said. “Immunity, digestion, and then we will continue to focus on areas that are relevant to people’s lives. What products are people leaning on today and what are they trying to solve with these supplements? Those are the spaces that Mighty Gum will evolve into.”
Chewing gum sales have declined recently, partly due to the impact of social distancing and stay-at-home orders nationwide. Mr. Thalakotur believes the category is struggling to accommodate evolving consumer preferences. Its product is free from allergens and artificial sweeteners, flavors and colors, ingredients that many shoppers choose to avoid.
“Chewing gum can be a path to wellness, both in terms of what we put into it and what we don’t put into it,” he said.
In the early days of the pandemic, newly unemployed Cattie Khoury huddled in her Austin, Texas apartment, anxiously wolfing down packaged snacks.
Years earlier, she had adopted a healthy lifestyle and healed her tumultuous history with food. However, she admitted “it all went out the window” as the world descended into lockdown.
“One of the things I ate was trail mix,” she said. “I looked at the back of the package one day and saw that there was hydrogenated oils, highly refined sugar, and artificial colors… when it was supposed to be just nuts and seeds.”
Her revelation sparked a newfound purpose to pave a way for nutritious snacks. Months of tinkering in her home kitchen led to the launch of Toodaloo, a range of trail mixes combining sprouted nuts and seeds, fruits and functional herbs and mushrooms. The products are baked with coconut oil or olive oil and sweetened with organic apple juice and organic coconut sugar.
Last year, the brand was distributed in more than 500 specialty stores, including Sprouts Farmers Market, Erewhon and Central Market. The products are also sold online at toodaloo.com.
Ms Khoury, who describes herself as a “plant lady” with a bachelor’s degree in sustainability studies, has pledged to invest a portion of sales to promote regenerative agriculture. The startup has helped restore hundreds of acres of farmland through its partnership with the Rodale Institute.
“When I started Toodaloo, I wanted every ingredient to be regeneratively organic certified, but then there were about five ingredients on the market that I could use,” she said. “The goal is that if we support enough farmers, we can start reaping the benefits of this supply chain.”
Each trail mix contains adaptogens, which were used in ancient medicine and are believed to regulate the body’s response to physical or mental stress.
A sweet maple blend, Slow Your Roll contains coconut, reishi, ashwagandha and mucuna to aid relaxation. Spicy Citrus Blend Hot to Trot contains chilies, turmeric and ginger to promote gut health. Smoke Show, a BBQ mix, has roasted chickpeas, smoky spices, chaga and cordyceps for energy flow. Turning Heads, a cocoa blend, contains coconut, hibiscus, sea buckthorn and white rose to improve skin health. Deja Brew has a coffee flavor and cocoa, dates, maca and lion’s mane for energy and focus.
“I want to show that food can be functional without being medicinal,” Ms Khoury said.
Resistant starches, found in unripe bananas and undercooked oats, could be a driving force in transforming human health, according to recent findings from Los Angeles-based startup Supergut.
The brand markets a line of no-sugar nutritional shakes and bars formulated with a proprietary resistant starch fiber blend that has been linked to promoting metabolic health, regulating digestion, improving mood and more.
Resistant starch travels down through the upper digestive tract to the large intestine, where it ferments and feeds beneficial gut bacteria. A balanced gut has a profound impact on a person’s overall well-being, said Marc Washington, Founder and Chief Executive Officer.
Mr. Washington, a longtime health and fitness executive, created the brand to honor his late sister’s legacy and empower others to “take back and maintain control of their bodies” while also addressing the health disparities that exist affect multicultural communities. A core goal is to create products that are not only effective but also accessible and appealing, he said, recalling his sister’s struggles in managing her chronic metabolic diseases.
“A large part of the reason there are so many of these widespread health problems is because so many solutions are too restrictive, too difficult to maintain and not comfortable,” Mr. Washington said.
In the two years since its debut, Supergut has helped thousands of consumers achieve positive health outcomes, he explained.
“Many of our previous clients have been living with diabetes or struggling with their weight and really serious health issues and have tried so many things in the past,” said Mr. Washington. “We’ve proven that we can move the needle with this demographic when so many things, including the medications they’ve been taking, haven’t fundamentally given them more control over their health.”
Supergut is backed by a team of scientists, healthcare professionals and innovators. The company’s Chief Medical and Science Officer is Chris Damann, a gastroenterologist and former microbiome director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study evaluating the effect of the brand’s meal replacement shakes on quality of life in people with type 2 diabetes was completed earlier this year. The clinical study showed significant improvements in glycemic control and weight loss.
“Almost everything we looked at was moving in a positive direction, affirming that a strong, balanced gut is the foundation of good health,” said Mr. Washington. “We saw movement in things like energy, sleep, mood, brain fog, digestive health, less bloating and less heartburn.”
Earning consumer trust has become increasingly difficult with so many food and beverage products now promoting functional benefits, Mr. Washington said.
“That’s a big part of why we’re taking a differentiated approach,” he said. “Not just a science-based, evidence-based formulation, but backed by rigorous clinical trials. We don’t just want to tell you. We want to show it to you in a way that is not common in the functional food space.”
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