The search is on to find functional food and beverage products that make a positive net contribution to people’s health. Even in categories like fizzy drinks – once the domain of exclusively high-sugar and high-caffeine products – new products are being established to supplement overall wellbeing and, in some cases, target specific need states.
FoodBev sat down with Björn Öste and Dr. Elin Östman, two of the brains behind functional sparkling water brand Good Idea, which claims to help consumers modulate spikes in their blood sugar levels when consumed alongside a meal.
So how did Öste, a co-founder of oat milk brand Oatly; and Dr. Östman, a career food technologist, pioneer a drink that does the opposite of most carbonated beverages?
Can you tell us a bit about the science behind Good Idea?
Björn Öste (BÖ): Good Idea is a sparkling flavoured water like any other, but it has the secret component of five added amino acids and chromium that, when consumed with a meal, will help reduce the blood sugar uptake from that meal by some 25% or more on average. I think that will help you with many different things: for example, you stay awake after lunch and you listen to your boss’ boring presentation, or if you are in college and [have to] go through the first seminar after lunch. But of course suppressing blood sugar’s always good; repeated blood sugar spikes leads to increased inflammation and wears the body down, so if you can avoid those you have a much bigger chance of staying away from diseases such as, for example, diabetes or Alzheimer’s or obesity or other things like that.
And how about the product range – what does that look like?
BÖ: We have currently three flavours on the market; we have prepared a number of other flavours to launch as and when we have the distribution in place. They are just natural fruit and berry flavours; our first three now are a lime-lemon flavour, orange-mango, and we also have a dragonfruit flavour. They’re all very popular and have very different flavour profiles to help you match well with whatever you’re eating.
Can you tell us how you found yourselves working on a product this?
EÖ: I come from a background in research, so I’ve been in academia at Lund University in Sweden for almost 20 years. All of that time I have focused on developing food concepts or understanding food concepts… I’ve been working on different food concepts and this was one that was picked up by Björn and his brother, Rickard, who is a professor at my department at Lund University, and they saw the potential of commercialising this. Now I’ve moved over to that side to help out with the commercialisation of this product.
BÖ: We have an R&D company called Aventure based in Sweden where we do a lot of extensive food research and try to develop products that have documented health benefits, clinically proven health benefits, primarily in the field of the metabolic syndrome. The way to prove that they are functional, obviously, is to submit them to clinical trials. For us to submit any product that we have developed to clinical trial, the only logical reason to do that would be if you also have some kind of patent on the technology behind the product, so our philosophy since 2008 is to develop patentable and patented technology that develops all-natural, minimally processed food products with documented health benefits.
The team behind Aventure developed Oatly, the world’s first and foremost oat milk product, for example, which was patented by my brother back in 1994 or ’95. And in working with oats and oat milk, you study the metabolic syndrome and notably their ability to reduce cholesterol; but there are other really exciting health properties in oats and oat fibre and that research around the oat components has been driving all the work around Aventure for us. Of course, in a scientific environment when you’re looking at solutions to problems, you may come up with ideas that are not necessarily tied to your original thoughts, so for example when Good Idea came about, there’s no oat component at all in there, but we could really benefit from all our research and knowledge and the insights into metabolic syndrome issues. For us, when Doctor Elin and her professor first approached us, it was pretty easy to decide to work with them on launching this product, which we felt had tremendous potential, because unfortunately the need for a product like this is so pervasive and on a global scale. In some sense, two minds met and harmony and music started playing, and that led us to Good Idea!
Good Idea is currently available in three flavours: lemon-lime, orange-mango, and dragonfruit.
How do you pin down the aim for a product like Good Idea: is it for people with diabetes, or is it more general than that?
EÖ: The target for using the product – it could of course be many, but we have done all the basic research in healthy people – normal to overweight – so my philosophy has always been to try to prevent lifestyle-related disease like metabolic syndrome and diabetes-obesity and all that. That’s really where we come from and what we have studied so far. But of course there are lot of people with diabetes very interested in the product, they are very aware of having to regulate their glycaemia and they’re looking for all tools they can find to do this in a better way. We get anecdotal evidence from these groups that they see improvements in their blood sugar regulation when they use the product, so in that sense we are beginning to learn more about the potential of the product – and we also have a very early pilot study with type-I diabetes where we also got some inputs from several type-I diabetes patients, and they seem to be helped by Good Idea. That’s really the goal going forward: to expand our line of research to look at these groups as well.
How fine is the line between what you can and can’t claim with a product like this?
BÖ: It is a fine line and it’s a line that has to be balanced very carefully of course. As a food or a dietary supplement, we can’t communicate anything about detecting or curing or relieving symptoms of disease or anything of that nature, which is challenging when you know that you may have a product that works for some conditions, but we can’t effectively talk about that [to consumers]. There are things we can say, and we’ve spent a lot of time studying the regulatory framework obviously, trying to avoid any pitfalls and unnecessary mistakes that are otherwise easy to make. We also struggle with coming in with a functional product to a market which, unfortunately, a lot of consumers are pretty ticked off I think by suppliers that overpromise and under-deliver, and there seems to be a lot of them out there and a lot of companies make claims all over the map that we just don’t understand how the regulatory framework can allow them. They probably wouldn’t pass. But they’re out there, so there’s a lot of distortions and the poor consumer has not an easy choice to make. I think for us to able to communicate to these groups, where we could potentially help, has to be through doctors and healthcare professionals quite simply. They can make those recommendations and give that kind of advice to their patients based on their own appreciation or understanding of whatever product they recommend. We find that’s a very important influencer group for us to work with, and they understand the benefits we deliver and they see the need for it and they see the benefit in their patients, so I think there’s a broad community out there that is quite willing and ready to talk about these benefits to an audience we can’t communicate to directly ourselves.
People tend to see the US as a lighter touch when it comes to regulation. Will it get more complicated for you as the brand grows and expands?
BÖ: We are a Swedish product originally, the invention was made at the University of Lund. We have not yet launched in Europe but we are launching in the US. Now, does that mean that the regulatory framework is ‘easier’ or ‘more relaxed’ here? I’m not so sure about that. I think when you look at the European framework and the US framework, you could argue that the burdens of proof are pretty equal; we have to submit clinical data to prove [what we say] if we are challenged in court here in the US. The difference is that in Europe I have to do it upfront, and I have to get a seal of approval from an authority – the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) – and that’s an ordeal to go through that process. It costs money, it takes time, but the benefits of course once I’ve gone through that gauntlet and I get my seal of approval stamped on my forehead, I’m ready to go onto the market and do whatever within that approval framework. In the US, I can read up on the regulatory framework online: the FDA actually says that, if you feel that you comply Mr Supplier, go ahead. Knock yourself out. Have a good day.
But, if we are challenged later for some reason – somebody thinks we are overstating our claims – of course we’re susceptible to being sued by competitors, by the FDA or by others. And so I think it’s more of a philosophy, but with the regulatory framework the burden of proof is not that different.
How careful are you about blurring the lines between food supplements and medicine? Is that something you have to pay attention to?
BÖ: We do pay attention to that in the sense that, for example, in our communications, we don’t really want to make a consumer believe that it’s okay to continue eating bad food or stick to unhealthy behaviour and compensate that by just drinking our beverage. You could turn that around and say what we really want to do is to make it easy for consumers to change their behaviour and their lifestyle. I think nutritionists, dieticians, the whole professional healthcare community knows – and indeed many consumers know – that it’s important for them to change what they eat to reverse their health decline. To live healthier, to live better, to become healthier, they need to eat and live better. Everybody knows that inherently – it’s just so hard to make that change. Our philosophy here is ‘a hamburger can never become a chicken salad’ so to speak, but if you do eat hamburgers, drink this with it, and when you start feeling better you’re going to find that it’s going to be easier for you to change your lifestyle. Ultimately the goal is to have everyone eat healthier and eat better.
There’s a huge lurch towards functional food products right now, whether it’s confectionery or dairy. Is that something you see for yourselves, and is it something you were consciously trying to tap into?
BÖ: Absolutely, and I think it’s an obvious field to approach. We need to provide functional foods and food that delivers proper health benefits. It’s an obvious and, I would say in some ways, the only path forward for modern society. It’s way too expensive to take care of these diseases once they have manifested themselves. This is not just me talking; this is a very obvious and a very strong push throughout society. You look at the eastern world, Europe, the US – it’s the same thing. As it happens, it also fits our particular skillsets really well.
The other thing, as you say, that there are many functional products coming; I would like to argue that there are still extremely few, at least that have proven health benefits and that actually go the whole distance to test their products clinically like we do. I read research studies that say that energy beverages are classified as functional beverages. It’s ridiculous quite frankly. You could argue that they add some kind of function: you add caffeine and it wakes you up, well that’s a functionality. Maybe, but it’s not health. In terms of delivering preventive health, I don’t see many products at all. In fact, I think that we’re one of very, very few.
So you think it’s still quite a nascent area?
BÖ: Absolutely, I think the potential is enormous.
EÖ: We’re going into this whole area of functional food, but since we have such a specific way of giving this product – the idea is to have it with a meal – we chose to go with a flavoured sparkling water, which is a very natural product to have with your meal. We really want to make it easy for people to use it in their daily lives and easily exchange it. They may get the same kind of experience that they get from their sodas or energy drinks or whatever, with some sparkle and some nice flavours, but it actually does good for them, so I think that’s also where we stand out from this whole category.
And as a format, with sugar growing under increasing pressure, sparkling water is becoming massively popular.
BÖ: Sparkling waters is a very exciting category here in the US for sure, there’s no question about it. I think the challenge for us was, when we came up with the active components, we needed to figure out the most obvious and the most logical delivery format for it. It seems to be to us that the most common denominator among everybody for a beverage to drink with a meal would be some kind of water. We landed very quickly on the sparkling flavoured water category, obviously because it’s becoming hugely popular here and it actually just tastes very good with our product. We could potentially, over time, branch out into other beverage categories – that’s totally possible – but for now I think we’re very happy to be in the sparkling water category.
Regardless of functionality, how important is taste to you?
BÖ: First of all, lesson ‘Food Development 101’ is, if it doesn’t taste good, you can forget it. It doesn’t matter how functional or how well it delivers whatever property you want, if it doesn’t taste good, forget it.
Where is the brand in its evolution and where do you think it’s going?
BÖ: I think we have two facets in the development of our company: the first, the development of the product and proving the functionality and efficiency of the product. That took a couple of years and quite a lot of money. We’ve gone through that and we have a lot of clinical proof to back our claims. We have been doing this, I think it’s eight years now, or depending on when you look at when the actual groundbreaking research started it may be even longer than that, so bear that in mind: that’s phase one for us as a company.
Phase two started really early this year when we started launching in the US; we did a stealth launch online late last year but we went into retail in earnest in June of this year, so we are only four months into the market. In that sense we are a baby, we’re just crawling. We’re learning, we’re getting some exciting velocity data from our first supermarkets that rolled us out here in northern California, so we’re very excited about that. Now we’re crafting some unique, or at least some very different, marketing approaches; we’ll start rolling out marketing campaigns in fast-food restaurants and supermarkets this fall to test a slightly different approach to marketing a product like ours.
You talked about sparkling water: I think the beverage category in total is incredibly overcrowded here in the US. I think they say about 2,000 new beverages being launched every year, and maybe a few percent of them will survive after a couple of years. So you have an incredibly competitive landscape, which we need to cope with. We don’t [just] compete with other sparkling waters; we compete with every beverage on the shelf. You compete for the share of the wallet that the consumer is prepared to spend on their beverage with their meal. So our challenge here is to come up with somewhat unique and different branding and marketing activities – something we’ve learned a lot about first-hand in the work that we’re doing with Oatly, for example.
We’re in our early stages, we get some early reactions and some positive feedback for sure, the professional healthcare community is giving us tremendous support and that’s very exciting for us – but the jury’s still out. Next year will be very important for our commercial success here in the US.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2020