‘Synthetic vs natural’: Start-up targets fortification category disruption with organic plant-derived nutrients

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Image LumiNola
Image: Getty/Image LumiNola

Related tags Nutrient Nutrition Vitamin

UK-based BIOVIT is poised to launch plant-derived nutrient blends targeting fortified food and meal-replacement markets. Its vitamins and minerals, extracted from leaves, flowers, roots and fungi extracts, guarantees nutrient content, it claims, to boost product bioavailability and efficacy credentials.

A host of fortified foods including breakfast cereals, meal replacements, plant-based milks, bread and baby formula, contain synthetic nutrients. But according to BIOVIT, a growing body of evidence indicates that synthetic, lab-made vitamins and minerals have limited to no effect at all.

The UK company has just been awarded UK government funding, through the Innovate UK ‘Better Food For All’ initiative, for a £500,000 R&D project in collaboration with Swansea University to carry out what it claims is the world’s first study to measure the difference in bioavailability and efficacy between synthetic versus plant-derived nutrients.

BIOVIT will also develop new products for use in food and beverage manufacture. These are described as food-process-stable, giving guaranteed nutrient content to foods post baking, freezing and pasteurizing. It hopes this will enable mass consumer products fortified with plant-derived nutrients for the first time. And because organic certification prohibits synthetic nutrient use, BIOVIT believes it will open up the fortified food and meal-replacement markets to organic products for the first time.

“We are making the first clinically developed and tested plant-derived nutrient blends.” BIOVIT Founder and CEO Ky Wright

Some companies do already produce natural nutrients of course. “But what we are doing for the first time is doing it in a controlled precise way,”​ BIOVIT Founder and CEO Ky Wright told FoodNavigator. “We are making the first clinically developed and tested plant-derived nutrient blends.”

100% of the nutrients used in BIOVIT products are sourced from organically certified farms. These vitamins and minerals are extracted from leaves, flowers, roots and fungi and then standardised for nutritional content, so they can be used to precisely fortify foods in the same way as synthetic multi-nutrients.

Meanwhile, while studies about the beneficial health effects of many synthetic nutrients have been inconsistent, weak or shown no effect; certain synthetic supplements can be beneficial for certain groups of people at risk of nutritional deficiencies.

“There is some evidence that in some situations they do work but the way I would look at is that over the course of human existence and evolution we’ve used plant-derived nutrients,”​ responded Wright. “These synthetic ones have only been around for around 100 years and while there’s some evidence they work in some situations, there’s a lot of evidence that in other situation they do nothing at all and are even harmful. With synthetics, it’s a gamble because it isn’t known for certain what the affect is. But with natural plant-derived nutrients, it is known that they work.”​   

The company expects to make its products available to food and beverage producers in the UK, Europe and US from the first quarter of 2024.  

The importance of micro-nutrients

Citing figures from the in-home health test company Vitall, BIOVIT claims at least 60% of people in the UK suffer from at least one severe micro-nutrient deficiency, leading to a range of health symptoms, including disrupted sleep, reduced energy, and increased rates of disease.

Malnutrition, meanwhile, is a major global issue, with an impact on the global economy of £2.86 trillion per year, or £409 per individual, according to the nutrition charity Bapen. In England, the annual cost of malnutrition is £19.6 billion, or 15% of the total expenditure on health and social welfare. According to BIOVIT, fortified foods, which are high in essential nutrients, are an obvious and potentially vital tool to help address malnutrition.

Synthetic nutrients are ‘misunderstood’ by consumers

Most consumers meanwhile assume the nutrients listed on a food product’s nutritional panel are indistinguishable from natural, plant-derived nutrients. The consumer therefore expects strong demand from consumers for organic plant-derived nutrients.

“It’s an amazing situation,”​ said Wright. “Synthetic nutrients are in everything from bread, cereal, baby food, plant-based milk and meal replacements and they are not what people expect them to be.”

The company has surveyed 500 people. Nearly half of them did not know synthetic nutrients existed. 86%, as soon as they found out there was a difference between synthetic and natural nutrients, said they would prefer to pay more for the natural ones.

Wright added: “Millions of people who currently rely on synthetic nutrients are assuming they are getting the nutrients they think they are from those products, but there’s not been a study that actually quantifies what is the effect of that on a person is.”

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