Vital Cuisine, meal replacement beverages
Meal-replacement beverages are entering new categories as interest accelerates.

CHICAGO — Refueling, hydrating and energizing are the functions most promoted on trending functional beverages in today’s marketplace. There is also a niche segment of beverages positioned as meal replacements. The primary function of the beverages is to nourish. As the name suggests, they are meant to replace a traditional sit-down meal and deliver a balanced profile of carbohydrates, fats and proteins, much like a consumer would obtain from meals developed following dietary guidelines.

“If you market a product as a meal replacement beverage, you owe the consumer a meal replacement beverage, in terms of providing satiety, calories and macro- and micro-nutrients,” said Kim Folta, director of product development, Imbibe, Niles, Ill. “You cannot misrepresent the product. If the consumer is hungry in an hour or so, that’s not a meal replacement.”

There are distinct markets with different needs. There are medical foods, which are likely the original meal replacement beverages. Many of the beverages may carry dietary supplement labeling. These are products designed for people with specific nutritional needs, deficiencies or illnesses, including digestive disorders, nutrient absorption challenges or food allergies. Some such beverages may be designed for tube feeding and serve as a person’s sole source of nutrition.

About a year ago, Hormel Foods Corp., Austin, Minn., introduced Hormel Vital Cuisine, a line of foods and beverages designed specifically to support the nutritional needs of cancer patients. The shakes were developed with assistance from chefs from the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y.

Vital Cuisine, meal replacement beverages
Hormel Vital Cuisine is a line of foods and beverages designed specifically to support the nutritional needs of cancer patients.

Each 14-oz nutrition shake provides 25 grams of protein from an array of dairy ingredients, including caseinates, milk protein isolate and whey protein concentrate. Like many beverages designed for special medical conditions, the primary source of fat in the shakes is medium-chain triglycerides. The easy-to-digest fats do not require energy for absorption, use or storage.

“During product development, we brought together researchers in both the health and culinary fields to ensure a thorough understanding of a patient’s needs during various phases of treatment,” said Chet Rao, strategy and business manager for the specialty foods group at Hormel Foods. “This product line was thoughtfully crafted since many product attributes such as flavor, texture and ingredients are known to affect patients differently during their cancer journey, during which eating and drinking can be challenging.”

Bruce Moskowitz, physician and chairman of the Cancer Nutrition Consortium, Boston, said, “Most cancer patients are too tired to make a meal, or even shop for it. Yet the importance of good, consistent nutrition can’t be overstated. We saw an opportunity to address these issues. So, in 2014, we embarked on this endeavor with Hormel Health Labs to improve cancer patients’ quality of life.”

Hormel Foods has not indicated how the Vital Cuisine product is performing, but Donald H. Kremlin, group vice-president of Specialty Foods, outlined the company’s strategy for the product and the company’s Hormel Health Labs business unit in a June 13 conference call with analysts.

“The age group of 65 plus is going to double between 2000 and 2025,” he said. “That alone gives us a lot of tailwind and demand for our products. But when you couple that with changes in the health care industry, people are going to be released from facilities like nursing homes and hospitals much sooner than they have been in the past.

“We have a relationship built directly with these patients as these leave these facilities, they can buy our product directly from us. They can buy the product off of e-commerce web sites from hospitals, nursing homes, other care facilities, along with retailers. This alone will help us keep these customers consuming our products for a longer period of time. In the past, our products were only available in hospitals and nursing homes.”