Special Edition: Innovation in dietary supplements

Savvier consumers seeking innovative products that deliver on simplicity, transparency, expert says

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Dietary supplement, Nutrition

Savvier consumers seeking innovative products that deliver on simplicity, transparency, expert says
A more sophisticated consumer base is driving the pace and direction of innovation, according to an expert who regularly helps supplement companies sample their wares in the marketplace.

Paul Jarrett is CEO and cofounder of BuluBox, a company that samples supplements and functional foods in subscription boxes sent out to consumers.  The Lincoln, NE-based company, which Jarrett founded with his wife, Stephanie Jarrett, then gathers reams of data about how the products performed via an active social media engagement with their list of subscribers. 

It all adds up to a way to see in real time what works—and what doesn’t—among new product innovations.  In his six years at the helm of the company, Jarrett said he has seen product innovators up their game in response to a more sophisticated end user.

Consumers demanding higher quality, more transparency

We see that consumers are so much more educated now about the subject matter.  In weight loss products, for example, weve seen a toning down of over the top claims.  It feels like there has been this slow but strong foundation building among consumers for the notion that there is no one quick fix.  It all has to do with your diet,​ Jarrett told NutraIngredients-USA.

Jarrett said that an echo of the free-from and clean label crazes that swept through the marketing of conventional foods can be seen in new product innovation within dietary supplements and functional foods. The core idea is one of simplicity and integrity, he said. While there are still many kitchen sink type products out there (why use one botanical when you can use a blend of 18?!), Jarrett said he has seen the ‘less is more’ idea gain increasing traction among the newer offerings. Consumers want to understand all of the ingredients in the product and want to be able to connect the evidence of action to those ingredients.

I would say in general what we are seeing in the companies that come to us is a trend toward much higher quality products. Companies are coming to us with new products backed by accurate clinical studies, and not some trial that somebodys cousin ran in their basement,​Jarrett said.

People are doing a better job of explaining where their ingredients came from and why they chose them,​he said.

As an example of this kind of thinking, Jarrett pointed to the Rxbar, a line of high protein nutritional bars that is built on a short, clean list of ingredients.  The ingredients and their amounts are printed in large type and form the products’ front labels.  The last ingredient is No B.S.​  While the concept might seem trite to some product developers with a long history in the industry, Jarrett said it is highly popular with consumers who don’t have a list of rules about how things ought to be done.

As simple as this sounds, a lot of the innovation were seeing is coming from the deconstruction of all the clutter. Its a matter of simplifying, of being more transparent. Choosing a short list of higher quality, more potent ingredients.  I think that trend will continue to go up,​Jarrett said.

Another trend that is steering the direction of innovation is the concept of food as medicine, Jarrett said.  Capsules, soft gels and tablets will always be part of the dietary supplement industry. Indeed for many active ingredients it would be difficult, or even nonsensical, to try to deliver them any other way.  But for those ingredients that can form part of a functional food, the growth opportunities seem more promising in that format. From the data he has collected, Jarrett said consumers are really connecting with those kind of products.

Getting the convenience/functionality balance right

Jarrett said he’s particularly intrigued by one innovative product that bridges the supplement/functional food divide: dissolvable protein scoops offered by Vade Nutrition. The products, which are based on whey protein, are individual servings packaged in a dissolvable film that disintegrates upon shaking.  The concept gets around the irritation of the fine, sticky protein powder spilling over the countertop or getting on one’s hands, and obviates the need to dig down into a newly opened tub of powder to find the scoop. Insignificant points perhaps, but solving these small problems can pay off in a big way, Jarrett said.

I feel like they checked all of the boxes of convenience, little to no sugar and so forth. When I look at this I dont see how there is any way this wont work.  It doesnt seem that innovative, but nobody else is doing it yet,​ Jarrett said.

Finding a hidden niche

Another product that seems to have hit a sweet spot so to speak is one that Jarrett said he was at first put off by.  It’s an object lesson in finding a niche in the marketplace that didn’t seem to exist at first. The product at the time was known as Energems, and now is known as Be On.  The basic concept:  small chocolate candies laced with caffeine, with some B vitamins thrown in.

Caffeine M&Ms in a cigarette box. Thats what it first looked like to me.  Nothing about it looked good to me.  At the time we were sending out things in our boxes that we thought of as healthy.  Dried kale chips and stuff like that.  I thought our subscriber base would be angry if we sent them this product,​Jarrett said.

But what we noticed is that all of the samples of this product that came into our office were disappearing. Thats usually a pretty good sign. We sent the product out and the conversion rate was insane,​Jarrett said.

As it turns out, BuluBox has a heavily female subscriber base, which is a pretty good place to be when trying to figure out what works in supplement and functional food innovation.  Consumer research has shown that women make most of the purchasing decisions for families concerning these types of products.

A lot of women dont like to drink a Red Bull. Theres a kind of guilt associated with it.  And some women dont like to take a coffee in the morning. People loved the product but they hated the packaging, and the company listened to us on that,​ Jarrett said.

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