The findings, which could also prove valuable to health professionals, policy makers and retailers, indicate that fruit and veg, fibre are in, while GM foods and appetite suppressants are out of favour with consumers of functional foods.
A representative sample of around 1000 adults (aged over 15 years) from each of France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Poland and Portugal (5967 participants in total) answered an interview-assisted questionnaire consisting of 12 closed-ended and one open-ended questions. The samples were selected to reflect a broad spectrum of geographical and demographic perspectives.
The research was conducted under the aegis of LIPGENE, an EU-funded project that analyses human nutrition, genomics, agro-food, social and economic analysis.
The researchers, led by Professor Maria Daniel Vaz de Almeida of the University of Porto, Portugal, wrote in the British Nutrition Foundation's Nutrition Bulletin (31, 239-246): "The survey findings are encouraging for development of novel dietary interventions combining nutrition and genetics to treat and prevent metabolic syndrome and related conditions."
Metabolic syndrome is a condition characterised by central obesity, hypertension, and disturbed glucose and insulin metabolism. The syndrome has been linked to increased risks of both type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Almedia's team had already established in a previous study that many consumers regard fruit and vegetables as functional foods - even though the proper definition of the term is foods that have added health or nutrition benefits beyond those that occur naturally.
Given this, they included fruit and veg in the list of seven 'functional' foods or food products that were regularly consumed.
While 86 per cent said they consumed fruit and veg at least once a week, the next most popular categories were high-fibre products (50 per cent) and probiotic yoghurts (26 per cent). Vitamin/mineral fortified foods and cholesterol lowering foods were consumed by 18 and 17 per cent respectively, energy drinks by 10 per cent and weight loss products by five per cent.
As to the desired benefits, the three most common were a cholesterol-lowering effect, blood sugar control and weight reduction. Interestingly, appetite control ranked the least desirable - despite market researchers highlighting satiety as one of the hot new trends in health foods, and several recent ingredient launches to this end.
As may be expected from a European sample, willingness to consume genetically modified foods was low, with around 30 per cent saying they would avoid such foods.
"While we found a good acceptance of functional foods, this declined sharply if these contained GM ingredients," wrote the researchers. Nonetheless, however the participants were seen to be more open to the idea of GM foods if the modification was to the end of making them more healthy, rather than other ends such as cost benefits and availability.
Consumers seemed to be quite open to the idea of genetic testing: 28 per cent said that they would be willing to have a test so they could follow a diet tailored to genetic needs. This could be good news for companies making inroads into the relatively new areas of nutrigenomics and personalised nutrition.
Overall, the researchers found that understanding of the term metabolic syndrome was low, with only around a third of participants having heard of it.
The researchers said that the findings imply the public is becoming aware that obesity is a growing problem, "but they do not associate it with metabolic syndrome and potential for chromic disease".
Indeed, central obesity was seen as representing the lowest disease disk, suggesting that people are more concerned with the aesthetic implications than the health risks.
High blood pressure and high cholesterol levels were identified as presenting the greatest health risks, said by the researchers to be because of public health awareness campaigns.