This has been one of the specialisms of Hans-Ulrich Frech, vice president for health nutrition and medical products at Gelita, since he joined the firm in January last year. He is charged with substantiating the ability of its collagen peptide products to tackle skin and joint health, especially in an ageing population.
These animal-derived collagen peptide proteins play a similar role to cement. Build a house with bricks and no cement and the whole thing would collapse. They help provide the support structure for the skeleton, stimulating the body to produce its own collagen. As the body ages, so collagen peptide levels decrease, increasing the likelihood of diseases such as osteoarthritis. Hence the need to keep them topped up.
This is just one half of Gelita's activities. The other deals with processing gelatine, which performs technical functions in food as the basis of gelling agents; stabilisers; binders; emulsifiers; film-formers; foams and whipping agents. Peptides also work as sugar and fat replacers.
Frech looks after Gelita's health and nutrition products, though. Part of his job is to communicate these benefits to customers and help co-ordinate commercial strategy for health-related ingredients, particularly Fortigel for joints and Verisol for skin.
He began cultivating practical and commercial experience at the University of Karlsrühe in Germany, where he studied economic studies and engineering. He went on to work for a computer firm. But it was his subsequent switch to sweeteners firm Palatinit (before it was merged with Beneo) that proved most relevant to his current role, although his sphere of activity was not health ingredients.
He started off in corporate planning, then switched to sales and marketing and business development. Eventually he became md for non-production matters.
His mission was to generate sustainable business for Palatinit's sweeteners isomalt, palatinose and inulin and he's proud of his achievements in leading them to overcome competition. "In sugar-free candy, for example, most people would say they would use isomalt, but we had to convert them from sorbitol and maltitol to what was a more expensive product. For example, Storck, a traditional German confectionery firm, took 10 years to switch. You have to find the right moment for the customer."
This ability to patiently work with customers to meet their needs remained supremely relevant after he moved from Beneo Palatinit to Gelita. A lot of his focus now is on powdered supplements sold in pharmacies and health food stores, but he is charged with increasing the firm's presence in the food industry. "Demand starts with nutrition supplement products powders or liquids added to beverages. This has to do with how we perceive products. People have more confidence in pills and powders, but what starts with pharmacies can end with supermarkets. Protein bars have taken a major step in that direction. Gelita wants to increasingly be involved in food."
The most obvious sectors offering opportunities are sports drinks and snack bars, he says. Sports beverages offer promise, because consumers already accept them as vehicles for protein benefits. Ordinarily, it is harder to mask unwanted taste effects from proteins in beverages but, thanks to Gelita's work, collagen peptides deliver much milder tastes, says Frech. "For the normal consumer, beverages are much more challenging, but we offer one of the most pleasant proteins. Sometimes companies add our product to improve overall taste."
One instance of collagen peptide supplements crossing into mainstream products is PepsiCo's Gatorade. It launched a series of drinks in the US last year offering protein boosts for a variety of occasions such as pre- and post-exercise, including Gatorade Recovery. "This is a nice example of a mass product for mainstream purposes and I think more products will come up in food."
That said, Frech argues the move towards nutracosmetic products needs to be cautious. "The jump from cosmetics to food has maybe been a fast move. The industry should take it step by step. The image of these ingredients has to grow. Danone launched a product two years ago for skin, but maybe it was too early."
However, he says: "Beauty from within is an established market in Asia and I'd support a move to the northern hemisphere. We are running consumer focus groups in European countries linked to these claims asking if they believe in them and we are presenting results to customers."
It's one thing to convince the industry of health claims and another to convince EFSA and this has been a steep learning curve. However, he accentuates the positive. Speaking of the various sides of his role, he says: "One is communicating to the customer and medical world and one is communicating to the authorities. That's the learning of the last 12 months where EFSA has communicated step by step."
There were three main steps in that process, he says. And whereas the outcomes so far have been rejections, progress has been made.
"In 20072008 our industry gave EFSA osteoarthritis studies to show the positive effect of collagen peptides. But we learned last year that it didn't want to look into them, because the studies were not based on healthy consumers, so there was failure." One of the criteria for valid substantive health claim research is that effects are measured on average consumers.
Gelita then shifted its attention to pitching a claim to EFSA under Article 13.5 of the EU Health Claims Regulation, claims based on newly developed scientific evidence. "But EFSA's answer was that we had missed some important statistical rules. We had defined an important sub-group during the study, not at the beginning before we had started, so we had to change the research's design.
"We have to learn from this. We had not designed the study for the authorities, but for the industry. That's why we didn't use 100% solid statistics. Now we know what we really need, we feel comfortable to do the research in the right way."
The situation is helped by the fact that the European Commission has indicated that it may delay its final decision about EFSA's opinions on submitted health claims. "Maybe this gives more time for industry to improve its approach. Whatever the Commission will do we think it's still worth investing in this area."
A big area of focus for research is so-called nutracosmetics or 'beauty from within' skin health claims. "We've done something in this area already and we will do further work," says Frech. "This is a promising area. We have seen more reporting results, but can't publish them yet as we have to discuss proprietary data with EFSA." The work will use EFSA-recommended methods such as double blind studies with placebos.
Despite the setbacks, then, Frech's quiet and patient optimism could pay dividends for Gelita, especially given his achievements at Beneo-Palatinit. He's just getting into his stride, while the European food industry looks on in eager expectation.