Turn the tide on ageing

1 October 2020

The global nutraceuticals market is booming, especially in the field of healthy ageing. Not that this is very surprising; with life expectancies rising and health supplements all the rage, there are huge opportunities for nutraceutical companies all over the world. Andrea Valentino investigates the latest industry trends and why savvy manufacturers should be looking towards East Asian markets if they want to keep profits high.

One way or another, nutraceuticals have existed for centuries. Though the term was coined back in the 1980s by an enterprising US campaigner, the idea of blending food and health goes back beyond that. During the Roman Empire, Roman physicians advised healthconscious senators to eat cabbage if they wanted to avoid bladder problems as they got older. By the Middle Ages, doctors across Europe were telling patients that fresh eggs and red wine were the secret to longevity.

From these archaic beginnings, of course, nutraceuticals have grown up and become hugely profitable along the way. If nothing else, this is reflected in the statistics. According to Grand View Research, the global nutraceuticals market is expected to reach $772 billion by 2027, a yearly increase of 8% on 2019. Particular regions are witnessing a more spectacular boom, with Asia-Pacific alone expected to bask in a $104 billion nutraceuticals market by the middle of the decade.

Nor is this explosion especially surprising. On a planet where there will be over two billion people over the age of 60 by 2050, the need for nutraceuticals is rising exponentially as an ageing population is desperate to keep active and healthy – even if it’s not quite as perky as it once was. All this means remarkable opportunities for companies that are innovative and enthusiastic enough to get involved – especially given developments in both health education and manufacturing.

A bitter pill to swallow

For as long as people have been getting old, humans have tried to ward off the effects of their age. As those early cabbage-heavy attempts imply, picking healthy foods in the past was more an art than a science. But as the understanding of nutrition has matured, so too has the effectiveness of particular products. From cholesterol cutters to antioxidants that help with brain health, patients can now choose from a whole range of nutraceutical pills and medicines.

All these developments are being prodded along by a number of factors – with concerns about ageing probably front and centre. Considering the range of ailments that afflicts the elderly – including cataracts, heart disease and osteoporosis – it’s hardly surprising that they are grasping for fixes, even when combined with more general techniques like exercise and a healthy diet. As Dr Muhammed Majeed, president of Sabinsa – a nutraceutical company in New Jersey, US – noted in 2018, herbs and nutritional supplements can help the elderly stay healthy in their “golden years”.

Counterintuitively though, this craze for agebusting supplements is not merely sweeping citizens in the twilight of their lives. As people begin to understand the importance of lifelong health, their children and grandchildren are getting in on the fun too. In a sense, the cliches about chia and avocado toast-obsessed millennials aren’t that far from the truth – though, more seriously, pregnant women and anxious youngsters are increasingly interested too. According to statistics by Euromonitor, a full 83% of 18–34-year-olds are now likely to take multivitamins, compared with just 70% of people 55 or older.

That is not to say, though, that nutraceuticals are perfect – far from it, in fact. For one thing, the delivery method of healthy ingredients is a major problem, with nearly 10% of elderly people finding it hard to swallow pills without gagging. To make matters worse, the hectic mix of ingredients in nutraceuticals, which often contains as many as 90% active ingredients, compared with just 30% in pharmaceuticals, makes them hard to recreate consistently. The unrefined and abrasive ingredients often found in nutraceuticals, especially multivitamins, can also damage the manufacturing equipment, as tablet punches and dies quickly wear out under pressure.

At the same time, these questions of ingredients pose branding challenges too. Because they are often made in dark shades, it can be hard for manufacturers to make embossing easy-to-read and equally hard for marketers to shift products off the shelf – especially for already-melancholy elders. Then there is the general issue of efficacy. Though a number of double-blind tests appear to conclusively show the genuine health benefits of certain nutraceuticals, from fixing muscle pain to cutting cholesterol, not everyone is convinced. To quote the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, nutrient needs “should be met primarily” through consuming food, a judgement that arguably, if not implicitly, condemns non-food nutraceuticals. Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, EU regulations dictate that nutraceutical products can only make ‘health claims’, as opposed to more precise medicinal ones.

$125 billion

The amount the Asian food fortification market will have grown to by 2030.


Step up the production

It would, therefore, be wrong to imply that, even with an ageing and health-conscious population, the path to a nutraceutical future is simple – but it would be just as wrong to suggest the opposite. Despite the challenges, nutraceutical companies around the world are working hard to face the future with a collective spring in their step. That probably begins with innovative production methods. With young people keen to integrate healthy products into their everyday lives, manufacturers are stepping up – banishing bad memories of nasty brown pills along the way.

Some companies, for example, are experimenting with delivering ingredients as milkshakes or liquid shots. Others, such as the Indian company Aavishkar, are investigating the benefits of dissolvable strips, which can be slipped into a pocket then placed under the tongue when needed. Some companies are even attempting to find a workaround to the old problem of unswallowable pills. In the Swiss city of Basel, for example, Lonza is working on a type of ‘sprinkle capsule’ that lets consumers pour healthy ingredients into their dinner.

As Stan Glab, manager of product development formulations at Lonza, put it a couple of years ago, this method “enables ingredients to be orally administered by simply sprinkling the contents on food, for consumers who have difficulty swallowing”. A striking achievement – one that is shadowed by similarly innovative developments in marketing. For if trendy new products help in the sale of healthyageing nutraceuticals, clever advertising does too.

A prime example comes courtesy of Lycored, another New Jersey manufacturer, which links its healthy skin products to alluring ideas about the Mediterranean and its famously healthy diet. Boasting the health benefits of quintessentially Mediterranean ingredients – notably tomatoes – its cheery wellness extracts promise ‘lifelong allies’ for ageing customers. This optimistic tone seems particularly suited to elderly people, who neither want, or need, dour warnings about their health – let alone patronising reminders about the risks they run as older citizens.

While the jury might still be out in some circles about the specific health benefits of nutraceuticals as a group, researchers are busy fixing these worries too. After a major 121-person study in Malaysia, for example, scientists showed that tocotrienols – a type of chemical in the vitamin E family – can help fight neurodegenerative diseases and the risk of strokes – both major dangers for older people. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Vancouver, Canada, another double-blind test by Bergstrom Nutrition suggests that one of its products can transfer sulphur to bones, thereby fighting osteoporosis. It goes without saying that as one of the main ailments to afflict people over the age of 50 – with 20% of women over 70 suffering from the disease – this research is incredibly important if nutraceutical businesses want to exploit the huge and growing healthy-ageing industry.


Percentage of 18–34-year-olds that would take multivitamins, compared with just 70% of people 55 or older.


Golden years ahead

To put it another way, the healthy-ageing market already offers vast space for companies organised, and innovative enough to set off and stake their claims. More to the point, it is an expanse likely to grow further going forward. And as with so much else in the nutraceuticals market, East Asian customers are prodding the market ahead. This is partly thanks to basic demography, with countries like China simply gaining a bigger elderly population by 2030. More than that though, the coming boom for East Asian nutraceuticals can probably be traced back to specific government action. Eager to drag medical statistics to Western standards, politicians are encouraging a range of health initiatives – all of which offer opportunities for nutraceuticals.

In India, for instance, poor children are being offered more nutritious school lunches. Malaysia, on the other hand, is limiting access to high-calorie products through food-zoning, which controls the type of food sold in certain areas and ensures that calorie information is clearly visible. For its part, neighbouring Singapore has banned adverts for high-fat products, gifting manufacturers of healthy alternatives yet another chance to strike. Nor is this last claim mere bravado. According to Temasek, a Singapore investment company, the breadth of new health legislation across East Asia offers a potential $205 billion opportunity for opening a nutraceutical company.

It is worth adding, however, that these plans ultimately feed back into the realm of healthy-ageing – healthier children mean healthier adults and healthier retirees, growing the pot of potential customers even further. No wonder Temasek estimates that, by 2030, the Asian food fortification market will have grown to $125 billion. This general surge, meanwhile, is reflected by that ultimate yardstick of industry growth: the trade show. Hosted by Singapore in October 2018, Vitafoods Asia welcomed over 5,000 visitors, some 44% of whom hunted products for healthy ageing. A far cry from Roman cabbage it may be, but it seems that age-busting nutraceuticals are here to stay.

As understanding of nutraceuticals has advanced, there are now whole ranges of nutraceutical pills and medicines to choose from.

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