How weight-loss drugs are changing the food industry

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Amid a GLP-1 boom, food companies are creating new products to appeal to the shifting appetites of people on weight-loss drugs

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More people than ever are taking medications such as Ozempic, and their appetite-suppressing effects are playing out in the grocery aisle. Users are cutting food spending, their tastes are changing, and companies are trying to keep up by launching new products in hopes of appealing to them.

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Roughly one million Canadians are taking Ozempic or other so-called GLP-1 drugs to manage obesity and Type 2 diabetes, CTV News reports, and one in eight Americans (around 30 million) have tried them, according to Bloomberg. Goldman Sachs estimated that weight-loss drugs could become a US$100 billion market by 2030.

“It’s not going away,” says Jo-Ann McArthur, president of Nourish Food Marketing in Toronto. “I think we’re just going to see more and more acceptance, and everybody in the food industry is going to have to do some scenario planning around this.”

In the United States, the meal kit company Daily Harvest has launched a high-fibre, pre-portioned GLP-1 Companion Food Collection. Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverages company, recently announced Vital Pursuit, a line of frozen foods for people taking weight-loss medication that will launch in the fourth quarter of 2024.

McArthur highlights that the 12 “portion-aligned” Vital Pursuit products will be high in protein and fibre and a source of essential nutrients — tailored to the needs of people on GLP-1 drugs. “Every calorie has to work much harder. So, you’re eating fewer calories, and those calories need to count for more.”

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Getting enough protein is especially important for people taking these medications because it helps maintain muscle mass during weight loss. McArthur predicts that protein and fibre, both satiating, will become even more vital for the food industry as the number of GLP-1 users grows. Just as there are keto-friendly and gluten-free options, she expects to see an increasing number of “GLP-1-friendly foods” on the market, including “those little indulgences” in much smaller portion sizes.

According to a Morgan Stanley report, grocery spending dropped by up to nine per cent in households that use weight-loss medication, with snacks and sweets taking the biggest hit. The banking company notes that consumption of carbonated soft drinks, baked goods and snacks could fall by up to three per cent by 2025.

A nine per cent drop in grocery spending might be less meaningful in a four-person household, “but on a single-person basis, it will be pretty significant,” says David Soberman, a marketing professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. GLP-1 drugs cause people to eat less, which is the main effect of the medication on the food industry. Soberman considers the indirect effect more critical: Weight loss drugs have sensitized the population to the seriousness of the issue.

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“Over the last 30 years, we’ve seen a steady increase in the average BMI in countries like Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, and this has led to all manner of health issues,” says Soberman. “This is really sensitizing people to that as a problem. And the other thing is, indirectly, it creates an interest in products that are either lower calorie or less fattening. It’s interesting because it creates a mentality that is not just related to the product itself but to the problem.”

A greater sensitivity to the issue might cause people who aren’t taking the drugs to adjust their eating habits, reducing their consumption of ultra-processed foods, for example, and shopping more on the outside aisles of the grocery store. Soberman’s previous research found that the pandemic also had this effect. “When people were spending more time at home, they shifted some of their buying away from ultra-processed foods to less processed foods.”

Morgan Stanley found that as households with GLP-1 users moved away from snacks, pastries and ice cream, they purchased more yogurt, fish and vegetables. Mattson, a California-based food and beverage developer, found similar preferences in its proprietary research.

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From its panel of 800 consumers, Mattson surveyed over a hundred who had taken or were taking weight-loss drugs such as Ozempic. The respondents reported becoming more mindful about their shopping (writing lists, reading labels and not making as many impulse purchases), shopping less frequently, buying more whole foods, cooking more often and reducing food waste while taking the medication.

“These drugs have really fundamentally changed the way people interact with food on them,” Katie Hagan, Mattson’s innovation and insights leader, said in a webinar discussing the findings.

Mattson found that GLP-1 users drank more water and were less interested in soda and alcohol. (The bubbles of carbonated drinks made people feel fuller.) They ate more high-protein foods, whole grains, eggs, fruits, vegetables and salads. In illustrating their change of appetite, one participant likened the crunch of apples and cucumbers to a potato chip. “It’s the crunchiness of the skin of the veggies and apple that is just tantalizing to me.”

People spending less money on groceries may be able to shift their spending to higher nutritional quality choices, says Soberman, who wasn’t involved in the Mattson study. “Being sensitized to this problem may mean that when you go into the store, and you can buy a can of pre-prepared beans, or you can buy fresh beans, maybe you buy the fresh beans. Maybe that causes some changes like that at the margin, which actually do make a difference.”

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As the Mattson participant illustrated in describing the appealing crunch of fresh produce, this return to whole foods could ignite new sensory experiences. “A lot of the foods that we’re eating, in fact, are ultra-processed, and so they’ve created certain physiological reactions that may not have even been present when we were all eating much less processed foods,” says Soberman.

The changes in appetite people experience on these drugs could be a way of reversing this effect. “Cucumbers probably crunched 200 years ago just like today, whereas there are lots of things that we eat now that didn’t exist 200 years ago.”

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