Danone discusses the role of plant-based innovation in medical nutrition: ‘Our priority is evidence-based nutrition that meets lifestyle choices’

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Manuela Borella, Danone’s Vice President for Global Plant Based Strategy & Business Acceleration / Pic: Danone
Manuela Borella, Danone’s Vice President for Global Plant Based Strategy & Business Acceleration / Pic: Danone

Related tags Danone Nutricia Fortimel Nutrition Medical nutrition

Danone’s specialised nutrition business Nutricia has developed its first plant-based ready-to-drink medical nutrition supplement. Fortimel PlantBased Energy is the product of an intensive three-year R&I effort. FoodNavigator hears from Manuela Borella, Danone’s Vice President of Global Plant Based Strategy & Business Acceleration, about why it is important to support the lifestyle choices of patients.

“I’m very proud of this work,” Vice President of Global Plant Based Strategy & Business Acceleration at Danone Manuela Borella enthused as she unveiled Nutricia’s newest innovation, a plant-based ready-to-drink nutritional supplement aimed at patients with disease-related risk of malnutrition.

The plant-based Fortimel product, a first for Nutricia, brings together two critical criteria. It is intended for people with a medical condition who are malnourished or at risk of malnutrition and as such the nutritional credentials must be of the highest order. At the same time, the company wants to bring options to patients who, through lifestyle choice or cow’s milk protein allergy, avoid animal-based protein inputs such as dairy. Fortimel’s existing range of oral nutritional supplements are all dairy-based.

The launch comes at a time when the number of people opting for a plant-based diet is growing, Danone noted pointing to Smart Protein Project data that suggests one third of Europeans are already following a flexitarian diet.

“Nutricia is taking into account trends, lifestyle choices, and taste preference to allow patients to have no nutritional compromise and be able to follow their dietary choices,” Borella told FoodNavigator. “This product is designed for people who have a preference for vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian diets, or for patients that happen to have an allergy or intolerance to cow's milk protein.”

In particular, Borella highlighted the lower carbon footprint of the plant-based formulation which, she believes, is an important motivator for many consumers who want to reduce their consumption of animal-based foods. Danone is therefore ‘in the process’ of certifying the new product’s carbon footprint with an external partner, she revealed. “Using alternative sources of protein could reduce carbon emissions…it could be a positive dimension and this could help with our goal of reducing carbon emissions.”

The innovation challenge: Marrying top quality nutrition with plant-based protein

The first plant-based Fortimel flavours have been developed / Pic: Danone

In medical nutrition, the nutritional quality is Danone’s first and foremost concern. “Our number one priority needs to be providing patients with evidence-based high quality medical nutrition that meets their nutritional requirements, as well as their lifestyle preferences. It is important that alongside lifestyle choices we always remember what priority number one is – nutrition,” Borella stressed. “In terms of how to achieve this in a plant-based formula, we have been working with very talented teams in research, in advanced health, in advanced science, to find the best plant-based protein combination.”

Fortimel PlantBased Energy is ‘nutritionally complete’ thanks to its blend of high-quality plant protein made from pea and soy sources. “In this product, the protein source is a combination of 30-32% soy and around 68% pea protein. Why this blend? This blend of pea and soy protein is super important and was chosen because it is considered high quality. The protein digestibility corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) of this combination is one... When you have a PDCAAS of one it is considered high quality.”

PDCAAS is an important measure because, in nutrition, it isn’t just about protein quantity or composition – quality and digestibility, how easily the body can access nutrients, is key. Borella declined to give further details of how Danone has been able to ensure it is offering the highest nutrition standards, be it through processing technology or formulation expertise, for company confidentiality reasons. “What is important is that Nutricia brings 125 years of experience and research in medical nutrition and at Danone we have very strong know-how and knowledge in plant-based solutions. This puts us in a great position to be able to cross-pollinate our knowledge in different areas.”

Adherence for improved outcomes

In medical nutrition, another important metric by which the quality of intervention is measured is adherence – whether a patient will use the nutritional product as directed by a clinician over a period of time.

A recent study conducted in the UK among a group of patients living in the community with or at risk of malnutrition, demonstrated Fortimel PlantBased Energy ‘significantly’ improved protein and energy intake, and was well tolerated over a 4-week period. Adherence to the nutritional intervention over the course of the study was 94%, the company revealed. Ensuring good adherence to medical nutrition patients have been prescribed is a key factor in promoting improved patient outcomes.

Various factors impact whether individual patients follow medical nutrition plans, taste and palatability are among them. Fortimel PlantBased Energy comes in two flavours: a blend of mango and passion fruit flavours, and mocha, a blend of coffee and chocolate flavours. “It's something I'm really proud of. Within the food for medical purposes space and the context of the specific nutritional profile that this product needs to follow, the sensory experience, the taste, is really well achieved. I believe this is one element that helps with good adherence in patients. We have a product that is meeting their health needs, their nutritional needs and their lifestyle choices with no compromise, and on top provides a pleasant experience.”

Leveraging learnings to accelerate innovation

The new products are the result of a concerted R&I effort from Danone’s research teams. “This kind of innovation takes some heavy lifting work form a cross-functional team. It has taken more or less three years from ideation to landing in the market. To develop such a complete nutrition product, it takes time because you need to find what works well from a nutritional point of view but also what works well from a taste and sensory experience,” Borella stressed.

Looking to the future, the business executive told us she expects to leverage this collaborative approach to innovation, as well as the specific nutritional learnings, to drive innovation at Danone. “My key takeaway is that you need all the possible collective intelligence, all the right brains, around the table from day one for such an ambitious project. You can kick off from an intuition – that's what happened with this product – but to make it happen, to go through the development journey and have the resilience that it takes, you really need to work with cross-functional partners to bring it forward together, making sure every voice is heard and every angle is looked after. This is how we were able to bring to the market a product that matches two key priorities: meeting the lifestyle preferences of patients and with no nutritional compromise.”

Fortimel PlantBased Energy is a Food for Special Medical Purposes for the dietary management of disease related malnutrition. It must be used under medical supervision. The product is now available in The Netherlands, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Finland and the Czech Republic. It will be available in other European countries later in 2023.

Keen to hear more about the latest nutritional science? Come join us at our upcoming face-to-face event in London Positive Nutrition 2023: Healthy Food for the Mass Market​.

Over the course of three days (29-31 March), FoodNavigator journalists will be joined by a host of experts​ from dieticians and nutritional scientists to food entrepreneurs and big brands to examine how the latest nutritional science and technology can meet evolving consumer demands.

For more information or to register, click HERE​.


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