Infant and early-life products have come under scrutiny amidst ingredient and labelling anomalies. Ahead of their panel on Infant Nutrition and Formula: Feeding the Next Generation, our speakers share their thoughts on the current infant nutrition landscape, using technology to deliver ‘natural’ products, and regulatory hurdles to overcome.

Infant formula and food products are subject to greatest scrutiny on ingredients and labelling. How can food-tech innovators maximise this interest as an opportunity to bring to market safe, clean-label and nutritious products?

Fengru Lin, Founder & CEO, TURTLETREE: “Food tech developments are opening up possibilities to bring to market the safe and nutritious products that consumers are looking for. For example, with precision fermentation, we’ll now be able to create high-value bioactives like lactoferrin (a nutritionally integral but currently missing component of countless infant formulas) in a clean, controlled environment where every part of the process is traceable and transparent. This is opposed to current methods of obtaining it from animal agriculture where conditions are less controlled, leaving consumers, especially vulnerable ones like infants, with less-than-optimum sources of nutrition.”

Hamutal Yitzhak, Co-Founder & CEO, ELSE NUTRITION: “The scrutiny of infant formulas hasn’t yet addressed a key aspect of production: the way in which the ingredients are produced also affects the final products. Highly processed foods and un-scrutinised ingredients pose a long term risk to health, since their daily consumption has been directly connected with higher risk for obesity, chronic and metabolic diseases, cancers and faster aging. That’s why people nowadays are looking for natural, minimally processed food, food clean from pesticides, toxins and heavy metals with short list labels they can read and understand. The trend of going back to real food and minimal processing of foods is evident in recent years worldwide, for healthy as well as non-healthy populations.”

James Young, VP Innovation and Business Development, DSM: “Providing high quality and innovative nutrition products in these industry is very important and the responsibility of everyone involved in this industry. The scrutiny on ingredients and labelling is well-intentioned and allows successful innovations in this area to command high levels of credibility, create opportunities for valuable IP and, ultimately, create the next generation of ingredients that will have a significant impact on the development of our children and a more sustainable food system.  I believe that there is no other industry that can provide this level of opportunity and interest!”

Mia Funt, Co-Founder & President, BYHEART: “It’s all about sourcing highest quality, cleanest ingredients from suppliers whom you know and trust! This would not be possible without our direct oversight of our Farm to Formula supply chain. We source each of our ingredients from partners who share our values and our commitment to rigorous quality standards to ensure that we are providing babies with the highest quality nutrition. We were also the first infant formula in the US to achieve Clean Label’s Purity Award!”

What’s missing in current breast-milk substitutes? How can technology help us deliver products that are closest to nature?

Fengru Lin, Founder & CEO, TURTLETREE: “Infant formula, while an adequate replacement for breast milk, is nutritionally insufficient for optimum infant health. For one, it lacks highly nutritious bioactive compounds like lactoferrin and oligosaccharides which have the ability to support gut health, immunity, and iron regulation. These compounds are found in uniquely high concentrations in human milk (cow’s milk, an alternative source of these compounds, contains far lesser concentrations of these dairy bioactives than human milk.) Research has shown that as compared to exclusively breastfed infants, formula-fed infants have increased risks of mortality and infections.

With technology like precision fermentation, we’re now on the way to recreating these bioactive compounds at scale and sustainably as well. This is going to be a game-changer – not just for infant nutrition, but for the world of nutrition in as a whole: A consistent supply will now open up more avenues for these powerful compounds to be used in new ways.”

James Young, VP Innovation and Business Development, DSM: “Breast milk is the gold standard of any infant formula and getting closer to the complex formula mother-nature has created is the goal of many innovator. Recent advances in fermentation technology have allowed the commercialisation of human milk oligosaccharides and will pave the way for many more of these fascinating materials in the future.  Other developments in protein technology as well as new platforms in cell-based milk development show exciting times are ahead.  But it is not only the ingredients themselves where innovation is needed – process development techniques to bring high quality materials to the market in a cost efficient way, innovation in analytical methods to further understand the complexity of breast milk as well as innovation in techniques to better understand the relationship between breast milk components and the infant microbiome are all areas that will help unlock some of the next generation of new products.”

Hamutal Yitzhak, Co-Founder & CEO, ELSE NUTRITION:  “95% of infant formulas available on the market are based on cow milk proteins, with only a small minority being plant based such as soy or rice, but all of them are based on highly processed ingredients. During recent years, though many infants and young children tolerate cow milk-based formulas, parents are seeking to feed infants and young children plant-based ‘‘milk’’ alternatives due to cow milk allergies, intolerance, or for lifestyle or cultural considerations. The need for optional plant based infant formulas is observed worldwide and is unfulfilled currently.  Additionally the lack of clean label, minimally processed ingredients based formula, may be part of the root cause for many of these symptoms. Although not yet validated as such, there has been evidence of improvement  from babies switching to plant based minimally processed alternatives.”

Mia Funt, Co-Founder & President, BYHEART: “Creating products that get closest to nature is not about adding or removing one ingredient; the primary focus of our innovation is protein – as this is the most significant difference between breast milk and formulas available to parents today. Our first of its kind patented protein blend is the closest to breast milk on the market and includes the two key proteins in breast milk – alpha-lactalbumin and lactoferrin.  The recipe features an 80:20 whey to casein ratio (incorporating partially hydrolysed whey), and is the first in the US to include organic, grass-fed whole milk (versus skim milk used by other formulas on shelf).”

How do regulatory hurdles affect the development and commercialisation of technological innovation in this space?

Hamutal Yitzhak, Co-Founder & CEO, ELSE NUTRITION: “Infant formula is tightly regulated worldwide to different extents. Introducing new sources or new ingredients requires a long process of demonstrating their safety and suitability. Moreover, in some countries the major ingredients are limited within the regulation, reducing the possibility to introduce new sources which makes the process more complicated and lowers the chances of success. For that reason , in these countries, a change in the regulation itself is needed, that allows technology and innovation to introduce new and healthy ways to produce infant formula.”

James Young, VP Innovation and Business Development, DSM: “Regulatory frameworks, on the face of it, can be often seen as a ‘hurdle’.  However, particularly in this category the regulatory requirements are right to be high and it is the responsibility of the innovator to ensure that new ideas can meet these important parameters. I believe that these ‘regulatory hurdles’ can be opportunities to drive innovation – be it in new ingredients, new process techniques to deliver nutrition or indeed finished products. Ensuring that new technologies are capable of meeting high standards is a good thing – for both the industry and the consumer, and will inevitably allow innovation into other spaces in the future.”

Mia Funt, Co-Founder & President, BYHEART: “The regulatory barriers in this industry are extremely high, as they should be! This is sole-source nutrition for our babies. These barriers can inhibit meaningful change in the space, as true innovation requires a large lead time to market, a nationwide clinical trial and FDA registration. When it comes to a decision as important as what we feed our babies, parents want to know that they are providing the best possible nutrition and they don’t just want claims, they want real proof! ByHeart is committed to innovating on baby’s first food and providing product transparency supported by clinical evidence to give parents comfort and confidence in their feeding choices.”

Fengru Lin, Founder & CEO, TURTLETREE: “With cell ag being such a new industry, the regulatory space is still largely undefined at the moment. Safety regulation of ingredients is currently one of the largest hurdles the industry has to overcome. Once this has been done, companies start looking at production at scale, and more importantly, product iterations can begin which would ultimately lead to better end products for consumers.”

To learn more, catch Fengru, Mia, Hamutal and James on the Infant Nutrition and Formula: Feeding the Next Generation panel discussion at Future Food-Tech London this September 22-23.