KANSAS CITY — The ongoing pandemic has fueled consumer interest in products promising a range of perks, from immunity support to stress relief. Functional food and drink sales in the United States hit $83 billion last year, up 6.8% over the prior year, per Nutrition Business Journal. A survey by Kerry Group found two-fifths of shoppers purchased more functional foods in 2021 than in 2020.

Emerging brands are tapping into burgeoning demand for foods with function. An array of applications incorporate ingredients including adaptogens, nootropics, vitamins and minerals, aimed at the growing appetite for grocery staples with added benefits.

Chew on this

When Mathew Thalakotur’s health routine wasn’t sticking, he considered chewing gum.

“I used to always forget to take my vitamins, so I decided to upgrade a habit I already had,” said the Seattle-based founder of Mighty Gum, a brand of chewing gum boosted by beneficial botanicals.

A consumer products veteran with previous stints at the Coca-Cola Co. and Procter & Gamble, Mr. Thalakotur partnered with medical professionals, herbalists and formulators to develop the sugar-free gum featuring a blend of ingredients to support immune health. The brand borrows from global healing traditions, incorporating ashwagandha from Ayurvedic medicine, elderberry from European folk medicine and reishi mushroom from Chinese medicine, plus vitamins and zinc. The gum has a berry mint flavor and is produced using a patented cold-compression method, which protects the nutrients during the manufacturing process.

Mr. Thalakotur’s early research found that of the 60% of consumers who buy traditional supplements, about half forget to use them consistently.

“People just don’t like swallowing pills, or they don’t like how much sugar is in gummies,” he added. “Mighty Gum is a sugar-free way to get vitamins into your routine, doing something you’re probably already doing; 165 million Americans chew gum regularly.”

Following over a year of product iterations, Mighty Gum debuted two and a half years ago, prior to the initial onset of the pandemic.

“The first two months were really quiet,” said Mr. Thalakotur, who works a full-time job to support his family and the business. “By the time May and June of 2020 rolled around, people started focusing on ways to strengthen their immune health. That’s when it took off.”

Today, Mighty Gum is sold online at mightygum.com and in several hundred retail outlets, as well as coffee shops, juice bars and wellness labs. The brand has become popular among the biohacking community, feeding a rising interest in self-experimentation to improve health and vitality.

Later this year, Mighty Gum will add a second offering, with a ginger mint flavor, focused on aiding digestion. The new product, inspired by conversations with consumers, “is going to take Mighty Gum to the next level,” Mr. Thalakotur said.

“I want to continue to expand into functional spaces,” he said. “Immunity, digestion, and then we’ll continue to focus on areas that are relevant to people’s lives. What are products people lean on today, and what are they trying to solve with those supplements? Those are the spaces into which Mighty Gum will evolve.”

Chewing gum sales have slid recently, driven in part by the impacts of social distancing and nationwide stay-at-home orders. Mr. Thalakotur believes the category has struggled to meet evolving consumer preferences. His product is free from allergens and artificial sweeteners, flavors and colors, ingredients many shoppers seek to avoid.

“Chewing gum can be a pathway to wellness, both in terms of what we put in and what we don’t put in,” he said.


Happy trails

In the early days of the pandemic, newly unemployed Cattie Khoury hunkered in her Austin, Texas, apartment, anxiously devouring packaged snacks.

Years earlier, she had adopted a healthy lifestyle, healing her tumultuous history with food. However, she admitted, “all of that went out the window” as the world descended into lockdown.

“One of the things I was gorging on was trail mix,” she said. “I was looking at the back of the packaging one day, and I realized there were hydrogenated oils, highly refined sugars and artificial dyes … when it should just be nuts and seeds.”

Her revelation triggered a newfound purpose to blaze a trail in nutritious snacking. Months of tinkering in her home kitchen led to the launch of Toodaloo, a line of trail mixes combining sprouted nuts and seeds, fruits and functional herbs and mushrooms. The products are baked with coconut oil or olive oil and sweetened with organic apple juice and organic coconut sugar.

Over the past year, the brand has gained distribution in more than 500 specialty stores, including Sprouts Farmers Market, Erewhon and Central Market. The products also are sold online at toodaloo.com.

A self-described “plant lady” with a bachelor’s degree in sustainability studies, Ms. Khoury has committed to investing a portion of sales to advancing regenerative agriculture. The startup has helped restore hundreds of acres of farmland through its partnership with the Rodale Institute.

“When I started Toodaloo I wanted every ingredient to be regenerative organic certified, but then there were like, five ingredients on the market that I could use,” she said. “The goal is that if we support enough farmers, then we can start to reap the benefits of that supply chain.”

Each trail mix contains adaptogens, used in ancient medicine and believed to regulate the body’s response to physical or mental stress.

Slow Your Roll, a sweet maple mix, features coconut, reishi, ashwagandha and mucuna to support relaxation. The spicy citrus Hot to Trot mix has chiles, turmeric and ginger to promote gut health. Smoke Show, a barbecue mix, has roasted chickpeas, smoky spices, chaga and cordyceps for energy flow. Turning Heads, a cacao mix, has coconut, hibiscus, sea buckthorn and white rose to improve skin health. Deja Brew has a coffee flavor and cacao, dates, maca and lion’s mane for energy and focus.

“I want to show that food can be functional without being medicinal,” Ms. Khoury said.


Gut feelings

Resistant starch, found in unripe bananas and uncooked oats, may be a force in reshaping human health, according to recent findings by Los Angeles-based startup Supergut.

The brand markets a range of no-sugar-added nutritional shakes and bars formulated with a proprietary resistant starch fiber blend that has been linked to boosting metabolic health, regulating digestion, improving mood and more.

Resistant starch passes through the upper digestive tract down to the large intestine where it ferments and feeds beneficial gut bacteria. A balanced gut has a profound impact on an individual’s overall wellness, said Marc Washington, founder and chief executive officer.

A longtime health and fitness executive, Mr. Washington launched the brand to honor his late sister’s legacy and empower others to “reclaim and sustain control over their bodies,” while addressing the health disparities affecting multicultural communities. A core objective is creating products that are not only effective, but also accessible and appealing, he said, recalling his sister’s struggles in conquering her chronic metabolic health conditions.

“A big part of why there are so many of these prevalent health issues is because so many solutions are overly restrictive, too hard to maintain and not enjoyable,” Mr. Washington said.

In the two years since its debut, Supergut has helped thousands of consumers achieve positive health outcomes, he explained.

“Many of our customers to date have been living with diabetes or struggling with their weight and really serious health issues and have tried so many things in the past,” Mr. Washington said. “We’ve proven that we can move the needle on that population, even though so many things, including the medication that they’ve taken, haven’t fundamentally given them more control over their health.”

Supergut is supported by a team of scientists, health experts and innovators. The company’s chief medical and science officer is Chris Damann, a gastroenterologist and former microbiome lead for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Earlier this year a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study to assess the effect on quality of life of the brand’s meal replacement shakes in individuals with type 2 diabetes was completed. The clinical trial demonstrated significant improvements in blood sugar control and weight loss.

“Just about everything we looked at moved in a positive direction, reinforcing that having a strong, balanced gut is foundational for health,” Mr. Washington said. “We saw movement in things like energy, sleep, mood, brain fog, digestive health, reduced bloating and less heartburn.”

Gaining consumer trust has become increasingly challenging, with so many food and beverage products promoting functional benefits today, Mr. Washington said.

“That’s a big part of why we’re taking a differentiated approach,” he said. “Not just science-based, evidence-based formulation, but also going out and proving it through rigorous clinical studies. We don’t just want to tell you. We want to show you, in a way that isn’t done in the functional food space.”

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