Growth Asia 2020

Allergies, immunity, and digestive health fuelling infant nutrition R&D – Growth Asia 2020 expert panel

By Tingmin Koe

- Last updated on GMT

Tackling allergies, improving digestion and aiding immunity are the key pillars for infant nutrition product innovation, says a panel of industry leaders. ©Getty Images
Tackling allergies, improving digestion and aiding immunity are the key pillars for infant nutrition product innovation, says a panel of industry leaders. ©Getty Images

Related tags Infant nutrition Digestive health Immunity Morinaga H&H Group

Tackling allergies, improving digestion and aiding immunity are the key pillars for infant nutrition product innovation, says a group of expert panellists from major brand names such as Biostime, Morinaga, and Nuchev.

Top management from the brands were speaking at the fourth episode of the Growth Asia 2020 broadcast series, where they discussed in detail the opportunities and challenges around the infant nutrition industry in APAC. (Listen on demand here)

Biostime, owned by Health & Happiness and one of the largest infant formula brands in China, said it was focusing on allergy-prevention research, with the goal of creating a brand-new infant formula.

Infant allergies in the form of eczema and food allergies are some of the commonly seen problems.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the brand also sees immune support as an imperative for its R&D.

 “COVID-19 has increased the level of awareness on the consumers on how they can build and strengthen their immune system.

“We have clinically proven probiotics strains that have demonstrated how to improve the immunity. We believe that probiotics is the best place to help and improve the immunity,”​ Akash Bedi, chief strategy and operations officer at Health & Happiness –said during a keynote presentation. 

In the panel discussion segment of the broadcast, the experts dived deeper into their R&D direction.

The expert panel included Dr Chyn Boon Wong, research associate at Morinaga Milk, Dr Marcus Persson, customer innovation director at AAK China, Ben Dingle, CEO of Nuchev, Hamutal Yitzhak, Co-founder, CEO, chairwoman at Else Nutrition, and Michelle Teodoro, associate director, food science APAC at Mintel.

For Nuchev, the infant and toddler goat milk specialist, functional benefits such as improving immunity and digestion are the key areas of interest for product R&D.

“We see R&D in two key areas,” ​said Dingle.

“[Firstly], increasing functional benefits including the impact on allergens, digestion, immunity and inflammation. Also, as a fact of the matter, gut health has the ability for kids to learn and their mental state,”​ Dingle said.

The company’s Oli6 goat milk was previously shown to improve digestion and immunity in a scientific paper published in the British Journal of Nutrition​.

The second area that the firm is working in is on lipids and its links to brain development.

The topic on lipids for infant health was also covered by keynote speaker Dr Sigalit Zchut, scientific marketing manager at Frutarom, which partners with AAK under Advanced Lipids.

She pointed out how INFAT – a proprietary SN-2 palmitate fat ingredient from Advanced Lipids – could benefit infant health, such as softer stools and a healthier gut microbiota.

“When it comes to oligosaccharides and the solutions, I believe [infant nutrition] will even closer mimic the properties of the human breast milk, and that will be very interesting,” ​Dr Persson from AAK China added.

More on allergies, clean processing

According to Dr Wong, fortifying products with clinically researched human-residential bifidobacteria (HRB) is another was to improve digestion and allergies.

HRBs are naturally present in the human gut. According to Dr Wong, it has shown to utilise human oligosaccharides (HMOs) present in human milk and are tolerant to the human breast milk lysozyme – an enzyme that attacks certain bacteria.

“HRB species have better functionalities and are thus better probiotics candidates,” ​she said, citing how​ Morinaga’s proprietary strains Bifidobacterium breve M-16V could protect against preterm birth complications by facilitating gut and immune development.

Naturalness and clean processing are also top of the list when parents are selecting infant formula.

To which, plant-based infant and toddler formula pioneer Else Nutrition stressed that it was not only a dairy, soy-free option, but also a clean alternative.

Made from almond, buckwheat, and tapioca​, the company has signed a deal with H&H for product distribution in ANZ and Hong Kong.

“Plant-based is not a passing fad but is here to stay.

“Companies like JUST, Impossible Foods, Macdonalds are penetrating to Asia and offering plant-based alternatives, we see that as the first precursor, and we are sure that plant-based products will get into those markets.

“We not only educate about our product as a plant-based, but also about clean nutrition and clean alternative…We are providing a new approach, which is a much cleaner way to process and retain nutritional value​,” Yitzhak said.

Teodoro concluded that there was a trend towards infant formula that closely replicates after breast milk.

On top of digestion and immunity boosting claims, eye health was another important claim due to the prevalence of myopia amongst kids in APAC, she said.

“On top of the nutrition side…brands can make growing-up milk or infant formula more value-for-money by extending the age-specific range, such as suitable for one to 10 years olds,” ​she said.  ​ 

Hot ingredients

Pre/probiotics, HMOs, lactoferrin and casein were cited as some of the most popular ingredients across the category.

This is the case in Biostime, where the company has launched a Probiotics with HMO for children under seven years old. The product claims to strengthen gut health and immunity.

“HMOs is a very new hot ingredient that has applications not only in the probiotics but also in the infant milk formula. I think we were probably one of the first few companies to launch HMOs plus probiotic combined in infant milk formula in Hong Kong and France,”​ Bedi said.

Agreeing that HMOs, pre/probiotics are highly popular, Teodoro added that lactoferrin, found in colostrum and breast milk, and casein were the other ingredients that would gain further traction.

Adding on her point that eye health is a growing concern, she said that DHA, lutein, vitamin E were ingredients that could be used.

Lab-grown breast milk, albeit still in a nascent stage, is another ingredient to look out for, she said.

The category is driven by Singapore start-up TurtleTree Labs, which previously told us it aimed to launch its product by next year.

Hot markets

While China is the largest infant nutrition market in APAC, the panellists also saw potential for growth in the South East Asian markets.

Bedi said that the Biostime brand was amongst the top five infant formula brands in China, it was also the leading brand in French pharmacies.

In the next 12 to 18 months, the company will introduce the brand to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Similarly, Else nutrition will be targeting China, followed by ANZ, India, and South East Asian markets.

For niche goat milk brand such as Nuchev, China is the largest market for the category.

“In China, the core belief is that goat milk is good, because Chinese parents see the impact of goat milk in terms of better digestion for the babies,”​ Dingle said, adding that Australia, South Korea were the other major goat milk markets.

From her observation across different markets, Teodoro pointed out that Vietnamese parents are increasingly interested in premium infant formula from South Korea and Japan.

“Foreign brands are perceived to be of a better quality,”​ she said, adding how local brands such as Vinamilk was catching up by using ingredients imported from Japan and using Japanese technology.

Elsewhere in Indonesia, the higher birth rates also meant more opportunities for the infant milk industry.

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