The Medical Food Trend is Growing

Hippocrates once said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Despite the advancements in medical technology, many people are now considering medical food and nutrition to treat diseases and improve health conditions.

In a survey conducted by Nielsen, 39% of American households have someone who suffers from a particular ailment. And with the aging population increasing, chronic diseases will only grow in the coming years. Traditionally, people have turned to medications to solve these problems.

According to the Nielsen’s Global Health and Ingredient Sentiment Survey, 70% of consumers worldwide and 60% of the American respondents noted that they are actively making choices for their health to avoid different conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and high cholesterol.

What is Medical Food?

Medical food is a new concept, but it is defined as food formulated for the dietary management of diseases with distinct nutritional needs that a traditional diet cannot fulfill. Medical food should be nutritionally complete and are designed to meet the distinct nutritional requirements of particular patients.

Companies like Hormel and Nestlé are now looking into medical foods to help their consumers manage their ailments through nutrition. Manufacturers want to join the niche of medical food because of the rising trend. Food brands who are delving into medical food are looking into producing foods intended for patients suffering from obesity, lactose intolerance, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and gluten intolerance. Food companies understand that being health-conscious is one thing but using medical food is a safer way to treat chronic illness.

The Future of Medical Food

The concept of medical foods is still in its infancy stage, but many question its future. With many people suffering from chronic diseases, consumers are looking for ways on how to manage their conditions without relying too much on conventional medicine and treatments.

Medical foods will go through a lot of scrutiny than conventionally processed foods. The extra attention that medical food gets will not only be focused on its nutrition claims, but also its safety as well as marketing. Marketing is critical because brands should not sell medical foods that fail to meet its promises.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is responsible for regulating medical foods under the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act Regulations 21 CFR 101.9(j) (8). The regulations for medical foods is not yet that strict, so food companies are not required to get approval by the FDA nor undergo premarket review. Moreover, they are exempted from getting labeling requirements for its health claims. Although the regulations for medical foods are not that stringent, they will surely change as the market expands. Medical food has a bright future but will face challenges from the FDA and consumers as the industry niche grows.

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Nestlé Creates Medical Foods for Growing Market

Let food be thy medicine. With this mantra, food manufacturing giant, Nestlé, is developing a new line of food – medical foods. Medical foods are not your usual protein or nutritional bars. They are prescription-based drinks and powders that are designed to meet the nutritional needs of patients suffering from certain diseases.

The company sees a significant potential in this market due to the aging population which accounts for 22% of the total population of the world. The company is relying on this new product to boost sales that are currently suffering from the decline of the loss of market share in the packaged food market. In fact, the company signed a deal with Seres Therapeutics to develop food products that can restore the natural microflora of the gut. It also bought shares in Pronutria Biosciences to develop amino acid-based products to treat muscle atrophy.


Supplements vs. Medical Foods

Head of Nestlé’s Institute of Health Science, Ed Baetge, noted that eating the right food can make a huge difference in people suffering from certain diseases. So what makes medical foods different from supplements? Unlike the latter which can be used by healthy individuals, the former is designed for people suffering from chronic conditions. Thus, they should be used under the supervision of medical practitioners. This new line of products contains active ingredients that are recognized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as safe.

The company is currently analyzing human DNA to develop personalized nutrition programs for age-related conditions such as intestinal disorders and epilepsy. The researchers from Nestlé aim to determine which foods should particular patients need to eat to reduce or even treat their symptoms. Consumers do not need to worry that they are eating Franken-foods. Scientists are developing the medical foods from all natural compounds that are obtained from foods like grapes, tomatoes, and coffee.

The company is placing its faith on medical foods to create a stable profit in the long run. The project for developing medical foods was set up five years ago and will run until 2021.

Hurdles in Medical Foods

One of its challenges is the enormous research cost. Improving medical food is similar to developing drugs and FDA subjects them to rigorous monitoring to ensure that the company is following sound medical as well as nutritional principles. But perhaps, one of the biggest hurdles Nestlé is facing is that this new niche is uncharted and comes with uncertain benefits. The company also faces different obstacles, such as not all medical and scientific experts are convinced that medical foods will be successful in treating certain symptoms or chronic conditions.

Many foods can elicit placebo effects since the consumers think that they benefitted from the food that they are eating. This is the reason why medical foods are dubbed as the “Wild West” of the industry. More medical data is needed to determine the efficacy of medical foods. Otherwise, it is no different than the food types that dominate the food market today. Although this may be the case, patient groups still welcome Nestlé’s initiative.

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