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Why is there a renewed respect for nutraceuticals these days

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As the scientific community continues to unravel the complex relationship between the gut, the immune system and the impact of viruses and bacterias in humans, there is an increased focus on nutraceuticals and immunity-related therapeutics in India. Rahul Gupta, Business Head, Nutritional Science, Tata Chemicals explains the key drivers that will boost the nutraceutical segment in an interview with Raelene Kambli

How has the pandemic given a boost to the nutrition business? How is it getting reinvented to suit the current needs?

Nutrition science has established the importance that food plays an important role in ensuring health and wellness. There is a growing understanding of the relationship between macro-nutrients, micro-nutrients and phytonutrients present in our food and the health benefits that they offer. As an example, we are beginning to define not only the quantitative but also the qualitative aspects of proteins that we need. Another illustration is the manner in which we have understood the negative impact of ingredients such as trans-fats and the positive impact of fats that contain omega 3 fatty acids. We have a decent understanding of the role and need for vitamins and minerals and the adverse effects caused by a deficiency. 

Consumers’ keenness to build immunity is a relatively new trend and has surged quite dramatically since COVID-19. Since there is no cure or vaccine available for this virus yet, it is but natural for consumers to seek over the counter (OTC) products that help build immunity. However, there is a relatively lesser understanding of how immunity can be built through a regular diet. In recent times, we have begun the journey to unravel the mysteries that shroud the functioning of the human gut, especially how trillions of bacteria that populate the human gut influence our immunity. This is leading to a renewed respect for nutraceuticals such as prebiotics (e.g. Oligofructose or FOS and Oligogalactose or GOS) and their role in facilitating good gut health. A deeper understanding of human metabolic signatures and how these are modulated by the interplay between human gut microbes and human gut cells will help us develop a larger set of prebiotics and other nutraceuticals to enhance and fortify our foods and improve our health in a manner unprecedented till now. Many companies have started leveraging the properties of prebiotics and dietary fibre by developing a variety of applications, in the areas of sugar reduction and fibre fortification, across segments.

What kind of research is needed for better understanding of immunity and nutritional sciences? 

Immunity is the state of the body with adequate biological defences to fight infection and disease. As Indians, we possess a large repository of traditional wisdom in nutrition and food science and technology. These two platforms, if combined and used with modern science and technology can provide a variety of solutions that this most critical sector needs. Innovation, Science and Technology are being used to convert this tacit wealth of knowledge and wisdom into modern and contemporary food forms that are modern in look and feel, geographically sensitive, nutritionally balanced and without a taste penalty. A huge proportion of our immune system is actually in our GI (gut immunity) tract, this makes the research in GUT health even more important. In India efforts are underway, beginning with studying the inhabitants of Indian gut universe – Possibly the most diverse in the world. Every species has a specific role to play and collectively responsible for the overall health of bodily functions. With our research, we are finding levers to positively modulate and sustain the overall balance of these species. This new frontier of science is already beginning to take the Centre stage as it offers a holistic approach towards maintaining health and enormous product possibilities. Building on scientific evidence and food application technology is a key imperative.

What are the nutraceutical applications offered by Tata Chemicals? How are they utilised in various sectors?

Backed by a dedicated innovation centre, we offer products and solutions for Human and Animal health in key areas of gut and digestive health (Prebiotics), sugar reduction, fibre addition, vitamins and minerals fortification. Borrowing on the rich manufacturing heritage of Tata Chemicals, we have world-class, global scale capacity site that manufactures prebiotics and customised formulations.

Our application support includes rheological modifications, sensorial optimisation and enhancing the nutritional value of the packaged foods by using advance food technology techniques. Over the past few years, we have created many innovative applications to improve the overall nutritional value of the food; this includes traditional food formats, ayurvedic products as well as contemporary packaged foods. 

Tell us about your synergies with the pharma or nutra sectors.

Tata Chemicals has a nutraceutical arm called Tata NQ, where we focus on development and manufacturing of science-backed ingredients and formulations to enhance the Health and Nutritional Quotient of food products. Tata NQ produces prebiotics for the gut, sugar reduction and fibre addition. We work closely with nutra and pharma companies where the focus is more on building the scientific evidence and dosage optimisation for preventing the onset of disease and support immunity boosting. We are seeing fast adoption of prebiotics with new product introductions, particularly in categories of Synbiotics and Infant nutrition. The focus is to produce products that help in maintaining good health and build immunity. With the rise in preventive health care with targeted nutritional products, both pharma and nutra companies are looking forward to such ingredients which can bridge the daily nutritional gaps for consumers. 

With a growing consumer focus on building a strong immunity, do you believe that nutraceuticals will be the next big thing?

Growing consumer awareness, increasing disposable incomes and a desire among the millennial population to transform their lifestyles for the better have given the wellness sector across the world an unprecedented boom. The global pandemic triggered by the COVID-19 crisis has clearly brought a lot of focus on building immunity naturally. One of the most effective ways to do this is by adopting a healthier diet which includes consuming fortified products that have prebiotic ingredients. Both Pharma & FMCG companies will be investing in this segment to address the growing demand for healthier products, both through their own R&D efforts or leaning on institutions that specialise in this area. All of these efforts will be driven by a shift in the consumer demand for products that help build stronger immunity. At present, the worldwide wellness industry is valued at an astonishing $ 4.2 trillion and according to FICCI, in India, this figure is estimated to be Rs 490 billion.

How will the consumption of nutraceuticals change/increase in the coming days?

There is a lot of optimism around the growing popularity of nutraceuticals. A 2018 report on this industry by ASSOCHAM had projected the market for nutraceuticals to grow to around $18 billion by 2025 from around $4 billion (in 2017/18). 

The key driver for this segment will be a better understanding of general health and the value of preventive care than chasing a cure for common ailments. The growing popularity of nutraceuticals products in the market will be largely dependent on consumers opting for a healthier diet and more importantly how to access these easily through fortified food, vitamin/mineral, protein, and herbal supplements. 

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